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Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco walked into the Cajundome’s Mardi Gras Ballroom Friday morning before the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Fall Commencement.
About 40 faculty members, dressed in full academic regalia, milled around the room and chatted as they waited for the Commencement procession to begin.
Like a switch, a warm smile crossed Blanco’s face, and she began working the room.
It was reminiscent of any of her electoral campaigns that spanned 25 years of public service – for state House of Representatives, the Public Service Commission, lieutenant governor or governor. Political observers have said Blanco’s cordiality and her ability to connect to voters as individuals were among her greatest assets.
On Friday, her 75th birthday, the first and only female to serve as Louisiana governor returned to her alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate of liberal arts and serve as Commencement’s keynote speaker.
The degree, she said, was “the most unique birthday gift I have ever received.”
During her address, she admitted the occasion was quite different than what she envisioned when University President Dr. Joseph Savoie informed her of the institution's intention to bestow the honor.
It was Blanco’s first public appearance since disclosing earlier this week that the eye cancer for which she was treated six years ago has spread to her liver. Blanco said she is undergoing treatments, but there is no cure for the disease.
She learned her diagnosis in late October. “So, as you can imagine, my life is suddenly filled with all sorts of new medical jargon, new medicines and new doctors,” she told the more than 1,200 graduates, their families and other spectators at the ceremony.
“So, I’ve been thinking hard about what I want to say to you today, knowing that you could be my last audience, but I am hoping not.”
Before Blanco took the lectern to address the gathering, she received a red doctoral robe with three velvet black bands around the sleeves. Savoie draped a hood lined in vermilion with a white chevron over the former governor’s neck.
Blanco’s 20-minute address offered a vigorous defense of her administration’s handling of recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The storms occurred a month apart in August and September 2005, more than a year and a half into Blanco’s sole term as governor.
At the time, the storms were the largest natural disasters in U.S. history.
“Those destructive forces made 1 million people homeless overnight. We had to fight back from a terrain that looked like nuclear disaster. It was a long frustrating battle.
“Louisiana suffered over $100 billion dollars of damage to our homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, bridges, levees, highways and more, but fight we did.
“You come from sturdy stock, you Louisiana men and women. Your parents, and aunts and uncles and other relatives and friends jumped right in and said, ‘Show me the battlefront.’ That huge ground fight was an amazing thing to behold.”
Blanco detailed her attempts to secure $13 billion in federal aid to alleviate the housing crisis that resulted in New Orleans and coastal southwestern Louisiana after the storms. It was an effort often stymied by partisan politics, she said.
Blanco declined to seek a second term in 2007, choosing instead to focus on recovery efforts.
In the decade since she left office, Blanco said the political partisanship she witnessed following Katrina and Rita has only worsened. She decried “the decline of civility” among public servants.
“Politics has always been a tough sport. But the politics of today are getting rougher than ever. My hope is that good people rise up. I want us to reclaim civility because, without it, we simply cannot lift our state and nation to the great heights that are within our grasp.
Blanco told graduates that people face a choice between “anger for the sake of anger” and “peaceful serenity.”
“I recommend serenity.”
Blanco said graduates have the power to define for themselves what happiness means.
“I’m a powerful woman, and I don’t say that because I was governor. I’m not powerful because I wield power, then or now, but because I claim personal power and I claim that power to define my personal happiness. I suggest you give yourself that great gift, too.”
Photo: Former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco addresses UL Lafayette Fall 2017 Commencement exercises Friday in the Cajundome. (Credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)