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I Remember John 

The lion has roared his last

And his final battle cry

Was that we who still stand

will take heart

and learn

how to roar.

Writers often search for things to say when a friend passes from this earth, but with John Hainkel, you have to wonder what to leave out. I left short some things, but that only means the story will grow with the telling and re-telling.

John could beat you up, then turn on that smile and be laughing a few minutes later. He could put on a suit fresh from the cleaners and, a few moments later, look as if he'd just been in a brawl -- and, at the same time, comment on everyone else's clothes. He favored seersucker, white linen and white bucks. A lot of his ties had traces of last week's Italian cooking.

The Senator did everything with great zest, from cheering on his beloved Tulane to making a witness sweat in a committee hearing. He combined a German's love of order and precision with an Italian's love of the good life. He had the mind of an intellectual but disdained intellectuals.

He professed conservatism but supported public arts funding as a founder of the legislative arts caucus. He was pro-business but was proud to be a key leader in cleaning up Lake Pontchartrain. He was not an orthodox conservative. He voted for taxes when he thought they were necessary, once earning the title of Huey P. Hainkel. But he fought taxes when he thought they were not needed.

I loved John Hainkel and he loved his family -- John, Juliette and Lili. He loved his friends, his state, his city, his parishes, his Legislature and his beloved companion June, whom he called his best friend. John never forgot where he came from, Lusher Elementary, De La Salle, Tulane. He stayed loyal to his schools all his life.

He was unique, the only state legislator in our history to serve as Speaker of the House and later as President of the Senate. He loved the system -- the give and take as well as the long meetings plotting strategies and planning future moves. A tenacious fighter, he was also quick to forgive when the battle was over.

John Hainkel was Old School. A modern man who merged old-time political skills with promises of a better future. He campaigned every waking moment, but could not call it 'campaigning' because it gave him such pleasure.

We probably went through a dozen barbecue pits during his tenure. He'd summon a few of us in the afternoon and announce that he had invited 30 or a hundred people to a barbecue and needed some chickens and pigs and stuff. The pits always rusted out in the interim and had to be replaced when a new session opened. To John, they were not legislative sessions; they were legislative semesters. He had his own names, his own terms, for everything.

Hainkel did not understand the concept of defeat. If the score was 62 to nothing in the third quarter, he always thought his team could come back. When he had no votes, he always believed the power of his logic would bring the right outcome.

His son John said he was an optimist. I would agree but add that he was an insatiable optimist. He was always reaching for that next thing that would give the people in his state a better life. Governmental reform, an improved business climate, better educational opportunities for children. He worked for many improvements and was often disappointed.

But he was never defeated.

We can take solace in the fact that when he passed, he was doing exactly what he loved to do -- cooking for his colleagues, recounting past triumphs, laughing over old exploits and plotting for an upcoming session.

John Hainkel was a great man, a legend. We shall not see his lot pass this way again.

I will miss him.

Editor's Note: Charlie Smith is a poet and veteran Louisiana lobbyist who advocates for the arts. He is a longtime friend of the late Sen. John Hainkel and a keen observer of the legislative and political process.

click to enlarge Sen. John Hainkel was always reaching for that next thing that would give the people in his state a better life. He worked for many improvements and was often disappointed. But he was never defeated.
  • Sen. John Hainkel was always reaching for that next thing that would give the people in his state a better life. He worked for many improvements and was often disappointed. But he was never defeated.
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