Some years, no single choice presented itself. In 1989, we honored a married couple notable for their individual contributions and for the powerhouse team they made together -- Pat and Phyllis Taylor. It marked the first time the award went to more than one person. Other dual honorees had no formal relationship; whether their work dovetailed or focused on different areas, our community was enriched by their commitment and vision. For the last two years, we expanded our reach and featured the tireless and heroic contributions of groups of citizens. With heartfelt gratitude and admiration, we honored our citizen soldiers in 2004 and the life-saving work of the Katrina first responders in 2005.
Each New Orleanian of the Year is selected not only for his or her contributions, but also as a public testament of our belief that more good things will come. We often catch them mid-act, as it were. We believe that these very special New Orleanians continue to shape and influence our community, whether through new projects and developments or by leaving a lasting legacy of generosity and leadership.
As we celebrate our 25th anniversary, we remember those who gave so much of themselves to our community. In this post-Katrina landscape, the vision and dedication of our fellow citizens serves as both an inspiration and a call to action.
While none of the honorees were politicians at the time of the award, three of the honorees will appear on the mayoral ballot next month -- Ray Nagin, Rob Couhig, and Ron Forman. Their current candidacies reflect just how much more our honorees have to offer after receiving the award.
Nagin and Couhig shared the 1998 award, a celebration of the economic and community rewards of professional sports. At the time, Nagin was a vice president and general manager at Cox Communications, but he was singled out by Gambit Weekly for his zealous pursuit and capture of the New Orleans Brass, an ice hockey team. The Brass enthralled fans from 1997-2002, until the NBA Hornets moved into the New Orleans Arena. By then Nagin had become mayor. Couhig, a successful lawyer and small business supporter, dazzled New Orleanians with the Zephyrs baseball team. The easily accessible stadium (with nary a bad seat) continues to offer affordable entertainment for the whole family and lures baseball fans from around the region and the nation.
Forman, the honoree for 1995, was CEO of the Audubon Institute until he declared himself a candidate for mayor. In addition to revitalizing the Audubon Zoo, Forman was instrumental in the opening of the Aquarium of the Americas in 1990 and the addition of the Entergy IMAX Theatre in 1995. While New Orleans has always had the well-deserved reputation as an adult playground, Forman's accomplishments and acquisitions have made New Orleans a family-friendly town, offering education and entertainment to kids of all ages. It's noteworthy that one of the people Forman recruited to New Orleans, Dr. Betsy Dresser, won the award in 2000 as director of the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species.
We note that public officials are not eligible for the award. Former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, retired from Congress at the end of 1990, thereby making her eligible for the accolade in the first edition of 1991. "In Lindy's case, the award reflected her many good works outside the public arena, as well as the fact that she had already committed herself to more tireless community work in the future, as a private citizen, even before officially leaving Congress," says Gambit Weekly editor Clancy DuBos, who wrote the cover story on Boggs' selection. "It's interesting to note that she went on to serve the public again, years later, as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, and she remains a powerful presence for New Orleans today, in her 'second retirement.'"
For the first New Orleanian of the Year award in 1983, Gambit selected Joseph C. Canizaro, a visionary developer and a man still in the news today. At the time, Canizaro was noted for his developments of the Texaco Center, Crown Plaza Hotel, and Canal Place. Through the years, Canizaro continued to leave his mark on the city's landscape, never more so than in his current role as a leading member of the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
The second award in 1984 also recognized a developer, Darryl Berger. The much-heralded opening of the Jax Brewery development revved up the economic engine of the riverfront and diminished the sting of an under-performing 1984 World's Fair. The Berger Company, based in the French Quarter, has grown into a successful development and investment enterprise with vast holdings in the city and select markets nationwide.
Oliver Houck, a Tulane professor of environmental law, was honored in 1986 for successfully negotiating a compromise between corporate and environmental groups, thereby saving the Bayou Sauvage as a national urban wildlife refuge. Professor Houck has maintained a focus on the protection of local wildlife, biological diversity, wetlands and coastal areas, and water pollution control problems. He has been honored as Louisiana's Conservationist of the Year, and Tulane has recognized him as a "Distinguished Teacher" and awarded him the 2002 Graduate Teaching Award.
The Bring New Orleans Back Commission is co-chaired by another New Orleanian of the Year -- Barbara Major. She shared the 1996 award with James Monroe, a civic booster and former president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. Major, a community and housing activist, continues to represent the St. Thomas/Irish Channel community and presently serves as the executive director of the St. Thomas Health Clinic, a non-profit clinic providing services to the underserved and uninsured population of the St. Thomas/Irish Channel community.
Another tireless supporter of the underserved is Sister Jane Remson, who shared the 1994 award with developer and arts patron Roger Ogden. At the time, Remson was singled out for her devotion and ministry to the poor, hungry and homeless. With Aaron Neville, she poured her energies into New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that annually presents concerts and celebrity gala mixers to raise funds to help alleviate hunger and homelessness in the New Orleans area. In addition to chairing this organization, Remson chairs Community Shares of Louisiana, a federation of nonprofit organizations dedicated to systemic change.
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, who won the award in 1987, continues to make headlines. The Saints have provided New Orleanians with a renewed source of hometown pride, despite heartbreaking defeats and successive losing seasons. As speculation grew after Hurricane Katrina that the Saints might move to San Antonio, Benson received more criticism than praise, but his most recent pronouncements (that he wants to keep the team in the Superdome) have helped lift the spirits of Saints fans everywhere. The team is scheduled to make its 2006 debut in the dome in September.
Although the ultimate playing field of the Saints lingers as an open question, at least to some, their home dome is on track to regain its super stature. Doug Thornton (2002), the regional vice president of SMG, the company that manages the dome and the Arena, continues to work tirelessly to repair the dome and showcase future sporting events, music festivals, and carnival parties.
Now more than ever, New Orleans needs help from within the community, in addition to state and federal assistance. The generosity of private citizens has enabled the development and growth of many of our city's cultural, community, and educational institutions. Without their support and their spirit, we would be a poorer city indeed. Jeri Nims, who shared the 2002 award with Thornton, has been a major philanthropic supporter of local and statewide arts organizations, especially in combination with educational initiatives. From the fortunes of the Lucky Coin Company, a business she shared with her late husband Robert, have sprung new buildings and programs at the University of New Orleans, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/Riverfront, the Magnolia School and many others. In 2005, Nims received the New Orleans Mayor's Arts Award and was recognized as the Patron of the Year, one of the Governor's Arts Awards.
Other philanthropists and civic activists who have won the award include:
• Businessman Bill Goldring (2003), was honored for his contributions of time, energy, and money to community causes, the arts, and education -- particularly Tulane University. As the CEO of Republic Marketing, the nation's largest independent wine and spirits distributor, Goldring has taken his company in recent months to new heights while continuing to lead many local civic and charitable endeavors.
• Developer and arts patron Roger Ogden (1994), whom we thank foremost for the magnificent Ogden Museum of Southern Art and its unique collection, remains dedicated to the art of the deal as well as the big deal that is Southern art.
• Larry Lundy (1993), CEO of Lundy Enterprises, one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the United States, operates more than 40 Pizza Hut outlets. Lundy has beaten leukemia to retake the helm of his company and re-emerge as a major supporter of educational initiatives at all levels.
• Banker Ian Arnof (1992) continues his contributions to public education and school reform from his present home in California.
• Business leader Jim Bob Moffett (1991), CEO of Freeport-McMoRan and founder of the New Orleans Business Council, has been additionally recognized by the Horatio Alger Association with its 2000 Norman Vincent Peale Award for extraordinary humanitarian contributions to society.
• Pat and Phyllis Taylor were honored together in 1989 for their remarkable individual accomplishments. Pat Taylor passed away in 2004, but his legacy lives on in myriad ways, not least of which is TOPS (Tuition Opportunity Program for Students), a tuition-assistance program serving more than 40,000 academically qualified Louisiana students that began as "The Taylor Plan." The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, founded in 1986 and now chaired by Phyllis Taylor, CEO of Taylor Energy, offers philanthropic support to education, law enforcement, military, community, and charitable organizations and other humanitarian efforts. Through the foundation and in her personal endeavors, Phyllis Taylor continues her significant support of local arts and civic organizations.
Less illustriously, Gregory O'Brien (1999) resigned from his post as UNO chancellor in October 2003 amid allegations that he misused UNO Foundation funds and violated state ethics laws. Until that time, he was universally heralded as a tremendous asset to the university and to the community. He is credited with elevating UNO's reputation and strengthening many of its programs and relationships. Currently, he serves as president of Argosy University, a for-profit college system with campuses around the country.
In addition to Pat Taylor, several other New Orleanians of the Year have died since receiving the award, with one honored posthumously: The Rev. Harry Tompson, S.J. (2001), was recognized for is work after his death from cancer in April 2001, but his legacy has grown through the LSF Foundation, Caf Reconcile, and the Good Shepherd School, in addition to the continued work of his students, colleagues and parishioners.
Dr. Mervin Trail (1988) passed on in January 2001. Trail was former chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Center, three-time president of the Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission (now the Convention and Visitors Bureau), founder of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, and past-president of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. As a civic and tourism booster, Trail understood the vital role that music plays in the city and worked to protect it as a champion of health care for New Orleans musicians.
Gary Groesch, our third honoree in 1985, died in November 2002. A carpenter turned activist, Groesch was recognized by Gambit for his tireless work on a public referendum that returned regulation of Orleans Parish utilities from the Louisiana Public Service Commission to the New Orleans City Council, and for his work to help local ratepayers escape the high costs of the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant. He co-founded the Alliance for Affordable Energy in 1985 and served as its executive director until his death.
Most recently, we lost E.J. Ourso, who died in December 2005 at the age of 82. During his life, Ourso donated more than $35 million to educational, religious and medical institutions. His largest gift was $15 million to LSU's College of Business, but he is also noted for grants to St. Augustine High School and the Audubon Institute, as well as a $1 million challenge grant to New Orleans' Second Harvest Food Bank. Ourso was Gambit's 1997 New Orleanian of the Year.
Those who have passed on are sadly missed, while those who remain are more important than ever to New Orleans' recovery -- and its future.
SIDEBAR (IN BOX FORMAT) New Orleanians of the Year 2005 First Responders
2004 Our Citizen Soldiers
2003 Bill Goldring
2002 Doug Thornton, Jeri Nims
2001 Father Harry Tompson
2000 Dr. Betsy Dresser
1999 Gregory O'Brien
1998 Rob Couhig, Ray Nagin
1997 E.J. Ourso
1996 Barbara Major, James Monroe
1995 Ron Forman
1994 Roger Ogden, Sr. Jane Remson
1993 Larry Lundy
1992 Ian Arnof
1991 Jim Bob Moffett
1990 Lindy Boggs
1989 Pat Taylor, Phyllis Taylor
1988 Dr. Mervin Trail
1987 Tom Benson
1986 Oliver Houck
1985 Gary Groesch
1984 Darryl Berger
1983 Joe Canizaro