Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Farewell to Gary Esolen, Gambit's spiritual godfather

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2016 at 9:22 PM

  • Gary Esolen.

We at Gambit lost our founding father and longtime mentor Monday (Sept. 19) when Gary Esolen, the paper’s first editor and publisher, died at East Jefferson Hospital after a brief illness. He was 75.

In addition to his groundbreaking work at Gambit, Gary also was the co-founder and first executive director of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation (NOTMC). In all his many civic and professional endeavors, Gary was a passionate advocate for the people and culture of his adopted hometown of New Orleans.

Born in Hancock, New York, Gary attended LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit liberal arts college — whose name, appropriately enough, matches that of the founder of New Orleans. At LeMoyne, Gary met several New Orleanians who influenced him, including future civil rights leader Rudy Lombard and future state Senator Hank Braden. Gary earned a Master’s degree at Syracuse and finished his coursework for a Ph.D. at Cornell. He was a Wordsworth Scholar.

Writing was always Gary’s first love, along with great conversation. He left academia to work as a writer and made a list of cities to which he might relocate — the top three being Santa Fe, Toronto and New Orleans. Gary’s wife Valeri LeBlanc summed up his choice: “New Orleans won as he felt he could find a place here and become part of it.”

Esolen very much became part of New Orleans. He arrived on New Year’s Eve 1978. He immediately set up shop in the microfiche room of Loyola University’s library, where he read newspapers going back 50 years. He got a gig at Figaro, an alt-weekly that thrived in New Orleans in the 1970s until 1981. During Figaro's last months, he met local businessman and former newspaperman Philip Carter, who previously published the Vieux Carre Courier, and they launched Gambit in early 1981.

In his column, “Standpoint,” Gary spoke truth to power in words that continue to resonate today. His first column, for example, was about the city’s “near-panic over crime.”

“Something has gone wrong. Crimes which people can almost dismiss from their minds when they happen in housing projects, or even in the French Quarter, are now happening in quiet Uptown neighborhoods, and it is terrifying,” Gary wrote, noting that the real problem was deeper, more vexing: poverty, inequality and racism. He concluded, “In the long run, to save this city from terrible trials, we must do something about the problems of poverty and unemployment. If we don’t, the consequences will be as inevitable as a relentless column of figures in an actuarial table. To fail would be more than a failure of caring, more than a failure of imagination. It would be a failure of plain self-interest and common sense.”

From its earliest days through today, Gambit has reflected not only Gary’s passion for New Orleans but also his vision and sense of mission. The paper’s role in championing more aggressive local utility regulation and equal rights for all citizens, as well as its political endorsements were all part of Gary’s vision. He also created the paper’s tradition of naming one or more locals “New Orleanian of the Year.”

My wife Margo DuBos, who succeeded Gary as Gambit publisher in 1987, remembers him as “a bold thinker who communicated his ideas with passion and intelligence.”

“I was fortunate to work for Gary in the 1980s, when New Orleans needed an alternative voice,” Margo recalled. “His many civic discussions in Gambit and in the public arena on race, the economy, tourism and urban planning shaped so much of the positive progress we see in the city today.”

Years after he left Gambit, Gary remained an important influence on the paper. When we celebrated our 25th anniversary in 2006 — not long after Hurricane Katrina — we asked Gary to write a piece reflecting on the city and on Gambit. “We knew it would be focused partly on entertainment, on what to do tonight or tomorrow night or next weekend,” he wrote. “But because we were in New Orleans, entertainment was not what it is in other places — it was, and is, the deep culture of the city, its music and its food and its arts and its spirit. We intended to mirror that culture to itself. And finally, we intended to be a positive voice in the public conversation about our city, to help shape the future.”

I often called Gary Gambit’s spiritual godfather, a term of profound endearment that still doesn’t do him justice. As a young writer, I saw firsthand how skillfully he handled errant reporters and their flawed copy — with equal measures of sensitivity and certainty. He was more than an editor; he made everyone who wrote for him a better storyteller and a better person. I could not have become an editor without first having worked for Gary Esolen.

My favorite example of Gary’s deft touch as an editor: In my early days with Gambit, I turned in a column that was more a rant than an analysis. Most editors would have torn it up and scolded me for being so unprofessional. Gary instead called me and, in his deeply resonant voice, said, “I don’t think you want to say this, but come see me and let’s talk about it.” He calmly walked me off the ledge in a way that became a lifelong lesson. I think of that day often. His voice will always be in my head.

A political liberal, Gary was also a realist. Above all, he was nonjudgmental about others’ politics. He gave a big break to an aspiring young political writer named Quin Hillyer — a ruby-red Republican even as a youngster — by recommending him to Gambit a few years after Gary left the paper. On Gary’s recommendation, Hillyer was hired and eventually became managing editor.

“Gary Esolen was one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met: bohemian in one sense and yet highly cultured; extremely practical and yet a dreamer — and always generous with his time and his advice,” Hillyer wrote in an email. “Gary loved interesting people; he loved great conversation; and he loved New Orleans. He was a great soul.”
Gary was one of the few people I would call a Renaissance man. He was interested in  everything, and he spent every waking hour learning as much as he could about all things. He loved nothing more than engaging others in long, deep conversations about topics that ranged from culture to politics, from history to architecture, from music to economics — and a wide array of other subjects.

He was also a poet and actor. One of his favorite compositions was called “Ancestors,” which his stepson Wil LeBlanc gave me permission to reprint, in part:
I have declared myself for speech
and now I’m back,
stammering out my old obsession,
homage to ancestors,
dead anyway,
and whom I don’t claim to know.
Are they buried inside me
like the bones I’m hanging from
so I might as well talk to them?
Or is death so simple
I can’t believe in it?

Former New Orleans City Councilmember Brod Bagert, who now is a performing poet, recalls Gary as “my teacher as a poet.”

“They say that when the student is ready the teacher will come,” Bagert wrote in an email. “In my case I won the lottery; my teacher was Gary Esolen. In our first conversation about poetry — 10 minutes while driving in the Lower Ninth Ward — he gave me a clearer insight into the essence of poetry than all of my undergraduate teachers combined. The world of poetry that I inhabit as a professional performing poet is the world according to Gary Esolen.”

At NOTMC, Gary worked with then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy to create and fund the fledgling city tourism commission.

“He was a visionary, particularly with regard to increasing discretionary tourism,” Barthelemy said. “At that time the city was primarily relying on conventions, but Gary felt we needed to attract more discretionary tourists. … Gary was a key partner in that effort.”

In those early days of NOTMC, Gary also worked closely with local public relations and advertising executive Malcolm Ehrhardt, who remembers Gary as “a man of many talents, and he was able to combine them as the leader of NOTMC during its infancy. He had a tremendous ability to capture the city’s history, culture and charms in developing messages and ways to deliver that helped us set hotel occupancy records.”

Mark Romig, the current president and CEO of NOTMC, called Gary “one of our great modern-day entrepreneurs. Whether it was in the publishing world or seeing a need for strengthening our economy through responsible tourism promotion, Gary combined his talents of long-range visioning and laser-like focus to create opportunities that to this day have continued to benefit our community.”

Jeremy Cooker, NOTMC’s current vice president, worked with Gary during the organization’s early days. Cooker says Gary’s influence was “nothing short of a visionary. … A kind, gentle soul who loved promoting the city, Gary knew how to tap into the minds of potential visitors and really motivate them to come to New Orleans.”

Even after leaving Gambit and NOTMC, Gary stayed in New Orleans and pursued his love of places and cultures. He and his wife Valeri LeBlanc, who was also his business partner for 15 years, founded and operated PLACESConsulting and were working with the City of Philadelphia to promote tourism there at the time of Gary’s passing.

In addition to his wife Valeri, Gary is survived by two stepsons, Wil and Wes LeBlanc, and many, many friends. A celebration of his life will be held in the coming months.

The best words I can find to sum up Gary come from his fellow poet, Brod Bagert:
“Time and again I was witness to Gary’s habit of undertaking stunning acts of selfless generosity. These were not just single acts of goodness but long-term commitments that exceeded all reasonable expectation. And this, I think, may be the passcode to the inner function of Gary Esolen: As a publisher, columnist, citizen-poet, and friend, Gary structured his life as a gift unique — one that will never be replaced and one that continues to give even now in the hour of his passing.”

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