BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A bagpiper played a somber “Amazing Grace” as Louisiana’s first and only female governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, returned to the state Capitol for her last time Thursday, carried in her casket by an honor guard for public viewing.
Her former staff lined the building steps, and hundreds of mourners packed the ornate hall between the House and Senate chambers to pay their last respects to the Democrat who led Louisiana during the massive blows of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Blanco died Sundayafter a yearslong struggle with cancer. She was 76.
“Even though I never met her, she was such an inspiration to me,” said Doris Weston, a state worker from Baton Rouge, as she waited in line to file past the open casket. “I was just really heartbroken that she had to battle cancer. Her family is definitely in my prayers. She was a great woman.”
The public visitation followed a morning interfaith memorial service in a downtown Baton Rouge cathedral on the first of three days of events for the former governor. The cathedral and the Capitol were filled with former and current Louisiana officials, including Blanco’s close friend, Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“Kathleen’s faith, life experiences and genuine concern for others allowed her to connect on a deeply personal level with nearly every person she met,” Edwards said at the prayer service.
He described Blanco as a woman who understood the beauty and hardships of life.
“She led Louisiana through some of its darkest days. And as a believer in divine providence, she would tell you she knew she was put in that position for a reason. And I believe that,” said Edwards, whose voice cracked as he spoke of his mentor.
Blanco served one term as governor, from 2004-08, her plans for a second term derailed by Katrina. But she was a fixture in Louisiana politics for decades, winning elections to the state House, the state utility regulatory agency and the lieutenant governor’s seat before reaching the top job. She died from a rare eye cancer that she battled successfully in 2011 but that later returned and spread to her liver.
“I can’t even put into words what she meant to me,” said Lisa Duplantier, who worked for Blanco in the lieutenant governor’s and governor’s offices. “She was an amazing woman. People underestimated her a lot. She knew what she was doing, and it was always for the betterment of Louisiana.”
The morning service included prayers and readings across many faiths, hymns and poetry. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who lost to Blanco in the 2003 governor’s race only to succeed her when she didn’t seek a second term, sat in the front pew with his wife.
Blanco’s grandchildren served as pallbearers, bringing the closed silver casket bearing the former governor to the front of the cathedral, where Edwards helped to drape it in a Louisiana state flag.
Hours later, Blanco’s casket was brought to the Capitol with a military salute and her former state police bodyguards among those carrying the casket. Her body lay in Memorial Hall for public visitation Thursday afternoon, with the former governor’s husband, 99-year-old mother and five living children among those greeting the public.
Those waiting in line to offer condolences wound through displays of campaign memorabilia, framed newspaper articles, family photos and religious artifacts that Blanco, a devout Catholic, treasured.
The red suit Blanco wore at her inauguration was on display, along with her wedding photo. Nearby was a photo of her son Ben, who died in 1997 in an industrial accident at age 19, along with the candle from his funeral.
In a surprising political twist, the memorial display featured a handwritten letter from former President George W. Bush, with whom Blanco repeatedly clashed after Katrina, as the Bush administration sought to blame Louisiana’s governor for the slow rescue response.
Bush wrote the letter on Dec. 11, 2017, a day after Blanco publicly announced her incurable cancer diagnosis in a newspaper column written to Louisiana’s residents.
“Dear Kathleen, I have just read your beautiful column to the citizens of Louisiana,” Bush wrote. “Your words were profound and touching. Laura and I will join the thousands who will pray for your strength and comfort. May God bless you and your family.”
Blanco will be buried Saturday in the heart of the Cajun region where she was born and raised, after a Friday prayer service in the city and a Saturday funeral Mass in Lafayette.