BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards delivered remarks at the memorial services for former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
As prepared for delivery:
It is with a prayerful spirit and grateful heart that I join you today to celebrate the rich life and legacy of former Gov. Edwin Washington Edwards - a son of Louisiana, the state’s only four-term governor, a man who seemed larger than life. As he once said, he was both a realist and a dreamer who often dreamed of a better world – and worked to make it so. I believe his service to our state and nation are proof of everything he worked so hard to achieve. In his words, – “without fear of contradiction”- he left his mark on every part of Louisiana. Edwin loved his family, and he certainly loved the people of this state. No one could disagree with that. To his credit, there are many ways in which he left Louisiana a better place to work and call home. His humble beginnings in rural Avoyelles Parish, the son of a sharecropper, taught Edwin many lessons that he carried with him throughout life. He once said: from the janitor to the chairman of the board, I try to recognize everyone for their individual worth. Being able to see other people in their shoes, understanding where they come from, I have a capacity to relate to everybody. And that he did.
Now it’s true we share the same last name, but we have so much more in common. His mother was a mid-wife, my mother was a nurse. Both lawyers, both served in the military, he was in the Navy and I was in the Army. We both emerged from small towns with big dreams to serve the people of our state. We shared a belief that government at its best was meant to help others, education should be accessible to all children no matter their race or background, and that we have a responsibility to help the poor. There is a robust role for government in improving lives, fostering opportunity and prosperity. He believed that diversity is one of Louisiana’s greatest strengths. In fact, when it came to diversifying state government at the executive level, he was the first governor to make it a priority. Before him there were no African Americans in the Governor’s Office or at the cabinet level in the state agencies. In short, he wanted his administration to look like Louisiana, a belief I hold and a commitment I have continued to build on. He was a big supporter of Southern University and especially loved the marching band. We absolutely have that in common. It’s no surprise that one of his wishes was to have them participate in today’s service. By the way, the band did a beautiful job today. Edwin was instrumental in the band’s participation in Pres. Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the university’s new administration building, the expansion of A.W. Mumford stadium, and most importantly the creation of the Southern University System during the 1973 Constitutional Convention.
We also shared the steadfast belief that access to quality healthcare is a right that everyone should be able to access – not the privileged few. He supported the charity hospital system by making sure that it was adequately funded. Coincidentally, my mother worked at Charity Hospital for decades. He leaves a legacy of working hard to help those who could not help themselves and using his voice to speak up for the impoverished - those who felt voiceless. Edwin, Trina and Eli often came to visit me and Donna at the mansion. They have always supported us and for that we will always be grateful. I can tell you firsthand how much he loved his family. And Eli was his absolute heart. Edwin’s eyes weren’t big enough to see him. He always brought mansion cookies home for Eli.
Like many of you here today, for our entire lives Edwin Edwards has been a part of Louisiana’s story. The year I was born, Edwin was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District. By the time I was 10 years old (1976), he was heading into his second term as governor. When I started law school at LSU in 1996, Edwin was finishing his historic last term as governor.
You know like I know that Edwin was smart, witty, charming, never at a loss for words. With him a sharp retort or a funny joke was always on the way. When he was in the room you knew it. He was both a risk taker and a straight shooter. Edwin always considered things from both sides – the pros and the cons. It was a built-in barometer that served him well throughout his numerous times in office from the Crowley City Council to the halls of Congress to the Governor’s Mansion. Many have said at the heart of the man was respect for all. When it comes to political issues he had “opposition” not enemies. A consummate politician, he worked tirelessly honing his arguments and calling on his most skilled allies like John Alario to try to win over those who did not see things his way. One minute he may have been fiercely debating an issue with you, and the next he was inquiring about your family or offering to share a good meal. Relationships deeply mattered to him. He put people over politics, something else we share and could certainly use more of today.
You know, there were only two types of people in our state when it came to Edwin Edwards: those who loved him and those who he would say were just wrong about such an upstanding citizen. In my opinion he didn’t just like being governor – he loved it! In a 2011 interview Edwin said, “I have been treated with a great deal of respect considering where I have come from and feel that I managed to accomplish a great many things.”
As we reflect on his legacy there can be many debates about his greatest contributions to the state – the 1973 Constitutional Convention that led to the adoption of the current state constitution, modernizing Louisiana’s economy and actively supporting and signing legislation establishing the 8-g (education) Fund into law. The fund was the result of a settlement with the federal government over revenue sharing from offshore oil and gas production. In 1986, the initial value of that fund was $540 million; today its market value stands at $1.4 billion. Over its 30 plus years of operation, $1.8 billion was disbursed to the Board of Regents and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, supporting educational excellence and building capacity in every corner of the state. Some of his other accomplishments included retaining the New Orleans Saints, restructuring the oil and gas tax and advancing the cause of Civil Rights. One thing is certain, there is NO debate about his commitment to public service and pride in our state.
He was a man of many talents, one of which included writing poetry. In another interview he shared a poem that ended with the line: May you never know a lonely heart and cherish our meeting from the start. His life and contributions to our great state will always be cherished. To Trina, Eli, Stephen, Victoria, Anna and David, and every member of his family, friends and staff, Donna and I are keeping you in our prayers. You have so much to be proud of. Second Timothy 4:7 says, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Gov. Edwards fought the good fight. He finished his race.
Maybe now when someone refers to me as Gov. Edwards, I won’t immediately look around for Edwin - but I doubt it. On behalf of the people of this great state, I thank Edwin Edwards for his service grounded by those deep Cajun roots and a deep love for Louisiana. May he rest in peace. Thank you and God bless.