In more than 40 years of covering politics, I've encountered countless poseurs who take credit for things that others make happen. Only rarely have I met someone who lives by the old wisdom that there's no limit to what can be accomplished if you don't care who gets the credit. Rudy Lombard was one of those rare individuals who never sought credit for the many great things he did.
Rudy was one of the early leaders of the modern civil rights movement in New Orleans. He was a national vice president of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). While still in college at Xavier University, he was arrested for leading New Orleans' first anti-segregation lunch counter sit-in at McCrory's on Canal Street. He took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
Rudy earned a doctorate in urban planning from Syracuse University and ran for mayor of New Orleans in 1986. He finished a distant fourth, but he made public housing a major issue in that race. In his spare time, he wrote a noted Creole cookbook, Creole Feast, and in his later years he was a leading researcher and advocate for educating African-American men about the dangers of prostate cancer, which he contracted a decade ago.
Rudy died Dec. 13 at the age of 75 after a brave battle against pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by his younger brother, Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Lombard, and other family members. At the visitation and in conversations afterward, Judge Lombard and Rudy's friends remembered him the same way I do — as a quiet, joyful hero.
"The most amazing thing about Rudy was that he was so reluctant to talk about himself and his contribution to the (civil rights) movement," Judge Lombard said. "I used to be angry about the fact that Rudy paid his dues and never got any note for it. He would just shrug it off and say, 'Don't worry about it. There's plenty to go around — plus you know it. That's enough.' It bothered me, but it never bothered him."
New Orleans businessman Don Hubbard, who worked with Rudy in CORE and helped drive some of the Freedom Riders to Mississippi during the 1960s, recalled how Rudy led the McCrory's sit-in.
"We were sitting in the kitchen at Oretha Castle's house," Hubbard said. "We asked ourselves, 'How can we organize a sit-in?' Rudy said, 'Leadership!' When we asked, 'How can we get us a good leader?' Rudy said, 'Well, I'll show you. Let's go. We're going to Canal Street.' It all started from there. ... Rudy was always the guy who, when others said, 'Maybe we should do something,' he would say, 'We is us! We don't need to wait on anybody.' He never hesitated to take that first step."
Rudy's arrest at McCrory's led to the Supreme Court's landmark civil rights case of Lombard v. Louisiana — and to a lifetime of travel, research, writing, mentoring and leading. In eulogizing his older brother, Judge Lombard called him "my Google before the Internet."
"If I needed to know something, I 'Rudied' it," he said. "Impressionist art? Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh? Ask Rudy."
"He made me read," the judge recalled later. "Any book he brought into the house, I better be prepared to discuss it. He made sure that I was prepared. He also shielded me. He knew I was too young to be out there facing the dangers of the civil rights movement like he was. But he made sure I met all the great leaders of the movement, especially the lawyers. That's what inspired me to become a lawyer."
Hubbard echoed that reflection. "Rudy was a driving force in the national civil rights movement," he said. "He is one of the reasons why I got to meet the James Baldwins of the world. Everybody just migrated to the guy. And he had the unique ability to meet everybody on their level, whether it was a guy picking up trash on the street or a guy with a Ph.D. like him."
Jacques Morial, son of the late Mayor Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, described Rudy as someone who "squeezed 150 years of life into 75 years of living."
That's the side of Rudy that I remember most. He would call me every so often with an idea, and every time I saw his name on caller ID it made me smile — because I could never guess what the call was about, but I always knew it would be something interesting and fun. When I saw Rudy lying in his coffin, he had that same little smile on his face.
Hubbard summed up Rudy's impact on people by recalling Maya Angelou's famous words: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
"Rudy always made us feel better," Hubbard said.
Even in the final weeks of his sickness, Rudy never stopped thanking people. That was just his way. "Some of those people only knew him for two weeks, but he thanked every one of them," Judge Lombard said. "Anybody else would have been cursing the Lord."
Not Rudy. In fact, if it's possible to make things better in heaven, Rudy's already organizing the effort. And this time, he'll get the credit he deserves.