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Last of the Steel Magnolias 

It's never easy to say goodbye to an old friend. It's even tougher when she was a mentor. Iris Kelso, the queen bee of Louisiana political writers, died Nov. 2 after a long illness at the age of 76.

Above all else, Iris served as a reminder that politics is about more than numbers and issues. She never lost sight of the fact that the root of all politics is people. She wrote about them all with passion as well as sensitivity. And while she often betrayed a soft spot for rogues with more than their share of human weaknesses, she never lost her reporter's unfailing dedication to truth and integrity. Ask anyone she ever caught in a lie.

She came to New Orleans from Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1951. Three years after joining the New Orleans States afternoon newspaper, she was assigned to City Hall, and her career as a political reporter took off. She moved to WDSU-TV as the station's political reporter in 1966.

My introduction to her, of sorts, came as a teenager, when I heard my daddy tell someone, "Iris Kelso is the last word on politics." Around our house, no one ever got the last word on my dad, so I decided then and there I wanted to be a political writer.

I met Iris while I was a history major at UNO. She graciously consented to let me interview her for my senior thesis on Mayor Chep Morrison's relationships with the New Orleans press corps. She knew the subject well, and the insights she generously shared with me that day at WDSU, where I interviewed her in 1974, remain with me today.

Years later, when I mentioned our first meeting to her, she could barely remember it. But then, to her it was just an hour or so away from the grind at City Hall or the state Capitol. To me, it was an induction into a new and exciting world. I realized then why my dad thought so highly of her, even though they never met. Her passion for her subject, her integrity, her courage and her generosity all combined seamlessly in the way she told a story.

God, how she could tell a story! I think it was her Mississippi roots that gave her that gift. Her cousin, the late New York Times managing editor Turner Catledge, once told me that Southerners (I'm pretty sure he meant Mississippians) make great writers because "they're natural yarn spinners. We grow up hearing and telling stories."

But Iris Kelso did more than tell stories. She left a mark. Sometimes, she changed the course of things.

In the mid-1970s, a transit strike threatened to cripple the local economy. In the early stages, then-Mayor Moon Landrieu refused to get involved because the transit system was operated by New Orleans Public Service Inc. (NOPSI), the predecessor to Entergy. It was a private sector matter, Landrieu maintained. He had no role to play.

That tack worked for a while -- until Iris weighed in. After weeks of impasse, Iris appeared on WDSU one night in a head-on piece, no "B-roll" or graphics, just Iris looking into the camera. "This is an open letter to Mayor Landrieu," she began sternly, delivering her message in that steely, Southern drawl. Then, for a minute and a half, she took the mayor to the woodshed.

Shortly thereafter, Landrieu interceded and the strike ended. Nobody but Iris could have pushed him off dead center like that. He never took it personally, though. In fact, he gave a moving eulogy at her services last Friday.

That's the way Iris left all of us -- loving her and missing her. She was the last of her kind. The last of the Steel Magnolias. So long, Queenie.

click to enlarge Iris Kelso's passion for her subject, her integrity, - her courage and her generosity all combined - seamlessly in the way she told a story. - DENISE S. HILL
  • Denise S. Hill
  • Iris Kelso's passion for her subject, her integrity, her courage and her generosity all combined seamlessly in the way she told a story.
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