Frank Donze, one of New Orleans’ deans of political journalism, died early this morning at 64. The cause was a heart attack, according to friends and family.
Danny Monteverde, who worked with him as a young reporter at The Times-Picayune, has done a thorough and beautiful obituary for Frank at WWL-TV. I can’t improve on that and I’m not going to try.
Frank was my friend, adviser and a boon drinking companion. He not only knew the players in every corner of south Louisiana, but he saw under the soil, knowing the tangle of complicated roots that connected everyone and everything. Even after the suits at The Times-Picayune fired him in 2012 along with a couple of hundred others, he still maintained every relationship, knew everything that was going on and could have written a daily column explaining the behind-the-scenes machinations at City Hall.
“Frank and I met in the 8th grade at Holy Cross High School,” Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos remembers. “We were sitting in the bleachers and he introduced himself and we just told ourselves our life stories. I knew immediately this guy was going to be my friend.” That friendship lasted the rest of their lifetimes.
Even as the age of polarizing politics and of opinion journalism infected the public discourse, Frank held tight to the verities: tell the truth, don’t take sides and damn the consequences. He didn't Facebook; he didn't tweet. Even when politicians didn’t like what he wrote, they had to concede he was fair. And right.
Frank wasn’t about “access journalism.” He didn’t kiss ass for access to the powerful — and he never sought to use his byline to amass power for himself. He saw himself as a shoe-leather (or tennis-shoe leather) journalist to the end, when The Times-Picayune cast him out in one of the most idiotic moves of the 2012 “digital transition.”
I covered that miserable time extensively. Many nights, I came home, fixed dinner, poured a glass of wine and had long phone chats with Frank about the latest at the paper and what the hell they were thinking over there.
In the spirit of Frank’s truth-telling, I’ll say this: the decision to cut him loose in his prime hurt him deeply, as it did his family. He had done everything the paper ever asked of him and done it brilliantly. Frank was the embodiment of the paper's institutional knowledge, the person admired and liked by cub reporters and veterans alike. When the pinheads with the spreadsheets let him go, they might as well have burned the library.
Frank was still in his fifties and wasn’t ready to retire. He took a job as the PR man for the Audubon Zoo. I teased him and called him “Dr. Doolittle,” asked if he got to to wear a pith helmet to work. He liked the work, enjoyed being away from the daily pressure of the deadline. But he was still a newspaper guy. That never left him.
On the week Valerio the jaguar escaped his enclosure at the Audubon Zoo and went on his animal buffet, I had a drink with Frank and noted, “You’ve had a busy week.” He complained lightheartedly about the nosy reporters who were bringing the hard questions about how Valerio could have escaped, but said, “They’re all the same questions I would have asked. What can I say?”
Last night a few reporters got together for a pre-election dinner, a chance to shoot the shit, make predictions, cast a few bets and enjoy each other’s company. Frank always was a part of those dinners and I usually tried to sit next to him to soak up some knowledge and a few laughs.
He didn’t show up last night — I don’t know if he wasn’t feeling well or just had something else to do. We remarked on his absence. But there would be other dinners, other chances to spend time with Frank Donze.
Except there aren’t.
Frank loved his wife Beth and their daughters Victoria and Caroline. I can’t imagine their heartbreak today.
Husband, father, reporter, friend: Frank had so much left to do. It’s our loss. It’s New Orleans’ loss.
I will miss him terribly.