In 1984, as a national political correspondent for NBC News, I came to Louisiana to cover the Democratic presidential primary. At the suggestion of my friend Clancy DuBos, I wandered into George Rodrigue's studio in Lafayette. We spent a couple of hours shooting pool, drinking beers and talking about his Cajun art. That night he took me to Mulate's Restaurant in Breaux Bridge and introduced me to Kerry Boutte, the fellow who kicked off the appetite for Cajun cooking all over America.
That trip began friendships and a conversation that has gone on for 30 years, involving art, politics (especially Edwin Edwards), football (especially LSU and the New Orleans Saints), Cajun cooking and endless Cajun jokes. Let me share a few moments from my memory bank.
In 1988, as Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave office, George called to say he was doing a portrait of Reagan and asked if I could help get some photos of the president riding his favorite horse. I went to the White House press office, explained my mission, handed over George's address, and they promised to accommodate.
A few days later George called to say a dozen photos had arrived. "Bode, these are no good," he said. "I can't paint the leader of the free world on this pale, short-legged, spindly horse! Can't you get me some better pictures?" My next visit to the press office was less well-received: "Well, you just tell Mr. Rodrigue that is the horse the president rides."
When I called George to tell him he was out of luck, he exclaimed, "It's OK. I solved the problem. I went to the library and got a book on Hollywood cowboys. I'm painting Reagan on Hopalong Cassidy's horse." That's the painting and the steed that George personally presented to Reagan. It was received with no complaints.
George also painted portraits of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He especially enjoyed presenting these paintings in person, sometimes doing so in the Oval Office. A few months after giving Clinton his portrait, the president found himself embroiled with the special prosecutor and pending impeachment. George called with this story: While they were with the president, Clinton admired the silver earrings that George's wife Wendy was wearing — one-of-a-kind, in the inimitable shape of the famous Blue Dog. Naturally, Wendy graciously removed the earrings and handed them to Clinton as a gift for his daughter Chelsea.
"Did you see the list of gifts Ken Starr released?" George shouted over the phone. "Presents from Bill to Monica? Right there with the beret, the poetry book and other stuff is an item labeled, silver earrings in the shape of a dog!" He laughed uproariously. Chelsea, George said, was out of luck.
George Rodrigue was the most optimistic man I ever met. After fighting his way through his first bout of cancer, his doctors deemed him cured. He called and exclaimed, "Bode, I'm Superman!" He celebrated by buying himself a new Mercedes. He also recounted his remarkable recovery to New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, whose cathedral rectory is right next door to the Rodrigue Gallery in the French Quarter. "I told him it was a miracle," George said. "The Archbishop replied, 'I prayed for you.'"
George chuckled, "Well, I guess now he's just two miracles away from sainthood."
As a devoted admirer of the Acadiana paintings, I, like some other of George's friends, adjusted slowly to his Blue Dog era. "George, how much longer with the Blue Dogs?" I once asked. "Will you ever get back to your early art?" George replied, "Well, maybe just a little longer, Ken. Just a little longer."
George was a man who lived in his own skin, confident in his purpose, with self-assuredness and joy. And thus the Blue Dog empire kept growing.
That was many years ago. It took a while, but we all eventually came to understand that George, the Blue Dog and Wendy's "Musings of an Artist's Wife" blog were all on a singular trip together. We also know that when Wendy arrived, with her love, devotion and companionship, Rodrigue entered the happiest period of his life.
Kerry Boutte, whom I met on that trip in 1984 right after I met George, recalls George as a man of incredible generosity, which I too have witnessed firsthand, and as an amazing artist.
"He painted hundreds of paintings depicting the Cajun culture in real-life situations," Boutte said. "Then he made an about-face and painted the Blue Dog. Not many artists can make such a dramatic change. And something indescribable happens when one first sees the Blue Dog. People of all ages connect to it. It borders on being a religious icon — because it symbolizes everything good."
That's how George's friends will remember him: as a guy who constantly reminded us all how good life could be.
Ken Bode is a veteran journalist who has worked at NBC, CNN and The New Republic. He is the former host of PBS' Washington Week In Review.