Friday, Jan. 3, 2014
By Rhonda Egan
I have been privileged to work for George Rodrigue since late 2004, yet I’m still one of the “new” ones on staff. Many of my colleagues within our small organization have worked for him for decades and been his friend for even longer. That says a lot about a man right there. All of us share in the shock that George is gone.
During the services that paid tribute to him, with messages from presidents, governors, mayors, friends, fans and family, one big theme of George’s life rang clear: generosity. Every single person mentioned this. They mentioned his unforgettable cackle of a laugh, his jokes, his artwork and his generosity.
When reflecting on my years with George I think about many of the same things as those who eulogized him, plus a few memories of my own: his fancy cowboy boots, his love of classic country music, and the times he would unexpectedly park himself in front of my desk in the gallery and just shoot the breeze. I remember all of the adventures I’ve had because of him and all of the people I’ve met. I’ll remember him as an artist who never tired of creating and was always excited about his next, newest works. And I, too, will always remember his generosity.
Anyone who knew George Rodrigue has a long list of stories to share about his generosity. There are two in particular I’d like to share. The first dates back to my earliest days in his employ, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Most of the staff had been in Houston for a gallery show the weekend the storm struck, which meant that many of my colleagues, George included, packed for a few fun days of socializing and cocktail parties. No one packed for an extended absence with the typical evacuation “I-might-need-these-important-papers-or-photos” box.
My home in Lafayette was never in jeopardy, and I spent a solemn ride back to Louisiana in a U-Haul truck full of paintings with two colleagues, all of us quietly worried but having no idea on that dark night just how bad the news would be the next day. We all know that story. In those horrible first days, in the morass of endless bad news and near constant worry for friends and colleagues, I also began to feel a cold current of fear for my own future — what would this mean for my own job? After about a week we all received a call that George wished to meet with us, so I went to the Blue Dog Café expecting to learn that I was laid off until further notice. An exhausted, worried staff gathered at one large table, food and drinks at hand, braced for the news. But of course, as I would learn over and over in the years that followed, George had a plan. He had rented a small space in a strip mall nearby, and it would be our temporary gallery until we could get back to New Orleans (he had also already secured housing for several staffers).
He wanted us to be there the following day to get it cleaned up together. We had phones and laptops and a truck full of artwork; George was already working on a design for a fundraising print. “We’re going to keep busy and we’re going to raise a lot of money to help a lot of people, and no one is going to think we’re not going back to New Orleans,” he said. In typical George fashion, his plan was not a circle-the-wagons and let me take care of myself first sort of plan. He found a way to give us a purpose through a terrible time, and that one print turned into a series of prints over the next year, all with heart and humor, that raised millions. He got us through. I’m proud to have been a part of that and incredibly grateful. Thank you for that, George.
The second story happened in December. Two days after George passed, a friend here in Lafayette invited me to lunch, knowing that I needed to get away from my phone and email for a little while. We stopped in a favorite local shop, and I picked up a small item for my son’s Christmas stocking; the young clerk asked for my email address, for the receipt. I gave it, without thinking, then braced for some sort of sympathetic reaction when I spelled it out because it includes George’s name. The young woman asked me, “You work for George Rodrigue?” I replied that I did and she said, “George Rodrigue sent me to college.” I was immediately choked up, realizing that she had been one of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts scholarship winners. I asked her what year she had won and she told me about her art studies at UL. She said that George was the reason she was in art school.
This small exchange moved me deeply, and again, I felt so proud to say I worked for him.
George Rodrigue’s loving family and his iconic artwork is the legacy he leaves behind. And from a too short lifetime of numerous public and private acts of generosity, his legacy will also turn up again and again like lovely seedlings to offer inspiration and comfort.
Thank you, George. Thank you for everything. Rest in peace.