Friends remember colorful career of Edwin Edwards
A public viewing Saturday at the State Capitol and private ceremony open to friends and family Sunday at the Old State Capitol marked the final ride for former Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Edwards, the state’s only four-term governor, died July 12.
Friends and colleagues remembered Edwards as a man who reached out to help the rich and poor, and showed a willingness to put party alliances aside to promote legislation for the betterment of Louisiana.
Edwards, 93, died from respiratory-related issues, according to members of his family who spoke with reporters during the weekend.
Edwards, a Democrat, served from 1972-80 and followed with terms from 1984-88 and 1992-96.
He succeeded two-term Gov. John McKeithen in 1972 and defeated Republican incumbent Dave Treen in October 1983. Eight years later, he returned to office after a runoff win over Republican David Duke, a former KKK grand wizard.
Lawmakers, past and present, hailed Edwards as an elite icon in Louisiana politics.
Former state Sen. J.E. Jumonville Jr., D-Ventress, who served during three of the Edwards terms, said the former governor “had a long, diverse life with a big, compassionate heart.”
“He was the only governor I knew that could see and feel all sides of an issue and make the right call,” said Jumonville, who served from 1976-92. “Knowing him was a special experience in my life.”
State Rep. Clyde Kimball, who also served from 1976-92, remembered his longtime friend as a leader who never met a stranger and was always willing to help them.
“He helped everybody, regardless of their party affiliation or their skin color … he did positive things for everyone,” he said. “Edwin Edwards always tried to do what was right for the people. Anybody could to go to him, and if there was a problem, he’d do all he possibly could to help.”
The legendary status of Edwards also drew the fascination of younger lawmakers.
Edwards represented the type of political figure seldom seen in today’s landscape, said current state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen.
“He certainly knew the art of working to get things done, something we’ve started to lose,” he said. “Despite some flaws, he did a lot of good things for the state, and he’ll be missed, for sure.
“He was an icon,” Ward said. “He served four terms as governor, and he did a lot for the state.”
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, who lived in the same neighborhood as Edwards during the former governor’s final years, said he will always remember the way he treated people regardless of their background.
“The thing I admired most about him is whether I was working as a mechanic or serving as a Speaker of the House he treated me no different,” Schexnayder said. “He won over the people of Louisiana with a big personality and with compassion, holding the longest-running reign as governor to prove it. He stood up for what he believed whether it was the popular opinion or not and led our great state through both trying times and through days of great strength. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”
Edwards defeated Duke in 1992 for his fourth term.
It was shortly after the final that Edwards was indicted and convicted on 26 counts related to gambling licenses. Charges included racketeering, extortion, money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud.
He was imprisoned from 2004-11 and followed with two years of home confinement that ended when he was granted an early release from probation due to good behavior.
Former state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, recalled a lunch meeting he had with Edwards before the former governor began his prison sentence.
“He somehow always remained positive – always believing he would one day return ‘home,’” Marionneaux recalled. “We communicated via letters while he was away, and he kept current with his politics even as he was ‘on vacation,’ even writing ‘I never received 83 percent of the vote in any election’ (referring to Marionneaux’s reelection to the Senate in 2007).”
Soon after Edwards’ release, Marionneaux had lunch with him in Baton Rouge.
“I was not sure how he would be received by the public. We were in a private dining room, and as he exited to go to the restroom, there was a table full of state employees,” Marionneaux said. “He tapped one of the ladies on the shoulder as he passed, never stopped and continued to the restroom. As he returned, they all stood, clapped, cheered and wanted pictures with him.
“He was so elated with the reception, though he told me often, ‘Rob, never let them see you sweat,’” Marionneaux said. “He genuinely longed for a welcomed return. On that day in the middle of The Little Village, he got his wish – a warm, welcomed return.”