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2002 in Review

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What's the best thing for the site of the former St. Thomas housing development? How should we best honor the character of the French Quarter? Who are the Duck Lady's real friends? In 2002, there were plenty of questions -- and much disagreement over the answers.

Reconsidering Ruthie

In February, Gambit Weekly examined the odyssey of Ruth Grace Moulon, better known as "Ruthie the Duck Lady," who evolved from a teenage French Quarter spectacle trailed by a coterie of waddling ducks, to a notoriously quirky "Quarter character" and nightclub-dweller forever cadging cigarettes and beers, to an elderly woman residing in a quiet Uptown nursing home, placed there by friends concerned for her health.

What she lacked in family was compensated with an abundance of friends, some of whom became divided over the type of life they think Ruthie deserves. Some say she should be back in a French Quarter apartment, depending on the kindness of strangers and friends. Others think she should have supervised care but needs more liberties than they believe she has in the traditional nursing-home setting of St. Charles Health Care, where she resides. Still others think that given her age and health problems, it's time to declare last call on Ruthie's party days.

The debate came to a head in January, when several of Ruthie's friends arrived at the home to take her to her birthday party, an annual spectacle featuring live music and hordes of well-wishers. They were turned away at the door by nursing-home staff who said Ruthie told them she didn't want to go.

Ruthie still resides at St. Charles Health Care and makes occasional appearances around town. On Halloween, accompanied by longtime friend Diane Ardon, a high-spirited Ruthie was feted at the Mourning Glory Ball, a fundraiser for Save Our Cemeteries. This Jan. 19 marks her 69th birthday; a party has not yet been planned.

Pot Luck

During this year's election season, marijuana initiatives popped up on several ballots across the nation. Louisiana's ballot didn't contain any pot proposals, but it didn't have to: the state already has a little-known medical marijuana law on its books, though no one in the state has ever taken a legal puff of pot. There is no local initiative to activate the state law, and law enforcement officers continue to make felony arrests on marijuana charges against people who would, most likely, be able to obtain legal medical marijuana under Louisiana's law.

Judges Behaving Badly

The unfolding saga of Jefferson Parish Judge Ronald Bodenheimer is straight out of a bad TV movie. The nutshell version: Bodenheimer owned an eastern New Orleans marina targeted by complaints of drug activity and zoning violations. The criticism grew after a teenager died in an electrocution accident on a marina conveyer belt earlier this year. Bodenheimer's response to the loudest marina critic, according to the FBI, was to try and shut him up by conspiring to plant illegal drugs in his vehicle. The FBI, which said it uncovered all this during a sweeping courthouse corruption probe, charged Bodenheimer with criminal conspiracy and drug violations. His trial is set for March. Federal prosecutors hope to get the cooperation of a witness who may testify about Bodenheimer's alleged involvement in a Metairie drug-smuggling ring. Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon also admitted he met privately with Bodenheimer in April to ask for a lenient sentence for his brother-in-law, who had been convicted in Bodenheimer's court of molesting teenage girls. Just when you thought it couldn't get any sleazier, accusations surfaced that Bodenheimer, presiding over restaurant magnate Al Copeland's child-custody case, awarded Copeland generous benefits in the hope that Copeland would respond with an offer to grant lucrative seafood contracts to Bodenheimer. The embattled judge remains suspended with pay.

Then there's Bodenheimer's colleague, District Judge Alan Green, who has not been charged with a crime or accused of impropriety by the FBI, but nonetheless found himself on the defensive after being taped accepting a $5,000 cash contribution from a bail-bonds firm also under investigation. Green returned the money. Late in the year, a third judge, Ross LaDart, came under scrutiny when the state Supreme Court threw out a $1.1 million award LaDart had granted to a sailor in a maritime injury case. The high court said LaDart had not disclosed that he'd had political and financial ties to the seaman's attorney.

On the other side of the parish line, Criminal District Judge Sharon Hunter's bungling allegedly resulted in several criminal cases overturned -- five of them murder trials. The state Judiciary Commission decided Hunter's courtroom was so messily managed that she couldn't continue on the bench and booted her.

This spring, the busy Commission also found that over a six-year period, New Orleans Municipal Court Judge John Shea had routinely violated state ethics rules that forbid judges from making political contributions to candidates besides themselves. (In a defense that could only be offered in Louisiana, the judge claimed ignorance of the law.) He was publicly censured by the state Supreme Court. And we can't forget the January fracas in the "Fightin' Fourth" Circuit Court of Appeal that ended with Judge Charles R. Jones and Judge Stephen R. Plotkin grappling on the floor of a courthouse conference room, reportedly amid screamed obscenities and at least one anti-Jewish slur. Jones, who admitted having "anger issues," was suspended for a month without pay. He later won reelection after his opponent backed out of the race.

Saints Alive ... Barely

At press time, the once glorious beginnings of the Saints' 2002 season -- a 6-1 start and wins over vaunted foes Green Bay, Tampa Bay and San Francisco -- were threatening to go up in smoke over a string of inexplicable losses to Cleveland, Minnesota, and worst of all, the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. Sneaking into the playoffs and winning a playoff game or two would help erase the current firestorm surrounding the organization, as the Saints are on the verge of a collapse surpassing their dismal four-game skid to end the 2001 season. If the black and gold miss the playoffs once again, it's going to make things VERY interesting in 2003. New GM Mickey Loomis has a bevy of draft picks to work with and high-profile players such as Joe Horn and Kyle Turley up for contract renewals, but the real drama will be off the field, as the blue-ribbon committee's recommendations on the possibility of a new stadium are due next year. With the sentimental value of the Superdome to many New Orleanians, it's hard to imagine taxpayers supporting construction of a new stadium for a team that seems to find ways to revert to its old losing ways after the dream season of 2000.

Perhaps the Saints' slide could be character-related karma coming home to roost. After failing miserably in 2001 with troubled wide receiver Albert Connell, former GM Randy Mueller gambled once again in free agency by signing cornerback Dale Carter, a man who had been suspended multiple times by the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and who declared bankruptcy in February, claiming he owed creditors $4.9 million. True to form, Carter violated the terms of his latest substance abuse probation before the 2002 season even started, and was suspended for the first eight games of 2002.

His reinstatement late in the season was supposed to be the catalyst to help turn the defense around. But since Carter's return, the Saints are 3-5 -- and after the miserable loss to the Bengals, television cameras caught Carter yukking it up on the field with a Bengals opponent. Memo to Coach Jim Haslett and Mickey Loomis: it can be tough in the felon-filled NFL, but please don't sign any free agents this year with lengthy rap sheets.

Catching a Buzz

The long-awaited return of the NBA to New Orleans became a reality in 2002, as the Charlotte Hornets packed their bags and headed south to become the New Orleans Hornets. When the fanfare surrounding the team's Oct. 30 home debut subsided, the Hornets saw respectable crowds attending subsequent home games at the New Orleans Arena, which bodes well for increased attendance heading into the second half of the season. Part of the attraction is the Hornets' well-established winning ways; the team's star nucleus of Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn has the Hornets primed for another playoff run this year.

Operation Clean Sweep

The French Quarter cleanup and crackdown, while heralded by some, left some Quarter visitors and residents in a tough position. In the summer, Jackson Square jazz musicians were dismayed to discover that the metal benches, which had been removed for repair, were not returning anytime soon. The Quarter's adolescent tap dancers were arrested and brought through juvenile court. Homeless men and women found themselves in jail, in many cases brought in on charges of public drunkenness or obstructing a public passage -- charges that they say depend on the whim of the arresting officer.

The cleanup began in June, soon after Capt. Louis Dabdoub moved to the head of the French Quarter's Eighth District from his former post at top of the Second District in Uptown; Dabdoub and Councilperson Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson became the faces behind the cleanup. Lately, the tap dancers have begun to reappear in the Quarter, although many still run if they see a Crown Victoria approaching. Local homeless say that Christmas approached with a new spurt of arrests, so they're watching to see what the new year brings.

Clarkson agreed to return the benches, which will now include armrests at set intervals to discourage homeless people from sleeping on them. The width of the intervals has been questioned at public meetings, but the true test of the new benches might be whether Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen -- who has been playing in the Square since the 1970s -- can fit in them. "He deserves a bench made to order," says one local music fan.

This fall, Myron Barnum, a homeless man and a regular on the Square, attempted to register to vote, using Jackson Square as his address. "Unconventional addresses" like these are allowed in every state except two. One of those is Louisiana. Martha Kegel, a staff attorney at New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. (NOLAC), represented Barnum as he tried to register. The city finally did allow him to vote, but in a different precinct, at his mailing address, a homeless service center where he does laundry and gets his mail once a week. Kegel says that NOLAC will be working over the next few months to persuade state officials to change their policy. "We want Louisiana to join the rest of the nation in allowing the unsheltered homeless to vote," she says. NOLAC has also been working with the Loyola Law Clinic to document arrests of the homeless, says Kegel, and the group Unity for the Homeless is conducting meetings with local police.

Meanwhile, homeless people point out that some local business owners and residents hire some from their ranks for tasks such as cleaning floors and lifting boxes. This longtime relationship was perhaps most obvious during Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili. The night before each storm found Philip Turner and Thomas Sias, known to most around as Doc and Pops respectively, standing underneath the Pontalba's galleries in taupe-colored Hefty-bag ponchos; the two had been busy, helping people board up their windows. Then Doc reached for his broom and strode toward a storm drain where he cleared away some flotsam from the day's rains.

"Do you see that?" he hollered, gesturing with a wink toward the pile of gunk next to his broom. "I've called the city about that. But you know we can't count on them."

Passings

2002 marked the passing of a number of distinguished Louisianians:

· Stephen Ambrose, 66, a University of New Orleans professor, historian and author left the nation a trove of American history, which he brought to life through his books, a cable television series and his founding of the National D-Day Museum. He described the museum as a tribute to the American spirit since World War II: "Visitors will learn not just of what we have done. They will learn of what we can do. They will learn that we are still in this together."

· Harold "Duke" Dejean, 93, saxophonist and founder of Dejean's Olympia Brass Band, performed for three American presidents, Pope Paul VI, Queen Elizabeth II and millions who came to love the musical genre he cultivated into an art form. Dejean played with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and later, regaled, visitors to Preservation Hall. Favorite saying: "Everything's lovely."

· Munro Sterling Edmonson, 77, professor emeritus of anthropology at Tulane University, helped found the department in 1967. "A specialist in ancient cultures of Latin America, he was the first scholar to recognize that the Mayan epics were written in couplets, in the same way as the Old Testament, and was an expert on the intricate rituals of Carnival," according to fall editions of Harvard Magazine.

· Lawrence Lucien "Uncle Lu" Edwards, 67, a founder and major stockholder of The Black Collegian Magazine, a locally published and nationally recognized publication, also founded Edwards Printing Co. in the late '60s, one of the first African American-owned printing companies in New Orleans. Edwards' printing company helped launch a number of early black political campaigns in the city.

· Ruth Fertel, 75, mortgaged her home in 1965 to buy Chris' Steak House, which she turned into a national chain of more than 80 Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurants known for thick, sizzling steaks and, locally, as the unofficial clubhouse of New Orleans' politicos. After her death, her son, Randy Fertel, recalled being raised by "The Empress of Steak" for a National Public Radio audience.

· John "Fritz" Fritzinger Sr., 55, a locally revered television news photographer and a decorated U.S. Army Ranger in Vietnam, was part of a team of soldiers who arrested Lt. William Calley for the My Lai massacre. A cameraman first for WVUE-TV, then WWL-TV since 1987, Fritzinger covered the Oklahoma City bombing and the standoff with the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, as well as hurricanes, murders and corruption. He died a few days after shooting footage of Hurricane Lili's aftermath. "He loved the biggest of the big stories," said news anchor Angela Hill.

· Gary Groesch, 50, environmental activist and executive director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy, used his last public address (from his deathbed) to recruit activists: "If you want to be a frontline soldier on environmental protection, social justice or environmental racism, come to Louisiana." Terminally ill, Groesch also told friends: "I'm not afraid of dying -- I just don't want to."

· Janice L. "Johnnie" Heymann, 82, a philanthropist, acted as both a volunteer board member and financial benefactor to local charities and the arts, including Touro Infirmary Foundation, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jewish Children's Home and the New Orleans Speech and Hearing Center. In the summer of 1997, her generosity helped city swimming pools remain open for local youth. She also helped build the Jimmy Heymann Rehabilitation Unit at Touro, named for her late husband, the president and CEO of Krauss department store, who died in 1984.

· Norma Dugas Minyard, 97, was a ragtime pianist who continued performing publicly after moving into a French Quarter nursing home in 1990. Minyard played piano in silent movie theaters in the early 1920s; her recollections of the era are housed in the oral history series of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University. She is the mother of Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, himself a jazz trumpeter.

· Lillian Velma Dunn Perry, 88, a retired teacher, pianist, organist and choral director, was director and accompanist for the Robert Perry Singers of the B Sharp Music Club. Perry was the Musician Laureate of the New Orleans City Council and performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

· Stan Rice, 60, reclusive husband of vampire novelist Anne Rice and the father of novelist Christopher Rice, also was the author of seven poetry books and the recipient of numerous honors. When he turned to painting, he declined to sell any of his works but authored a 1997 coffee table book, Paintings.

· Ellis P. Smith, 55, executive director of the nonprofit Central City Housing Development Corp., led nationally recognized efforts to provide low- and moderate-income renters and homeowners in the inner city with safe and affordable housing opportunities.

· Pearlee Toliver, a Monroe radio host, attracted a following beyond northern Louisiana with her distinctive style in announcing school lunches and sponsor advertisements. Toliver, who never told her real age but was likely in her 70s, died of a heart attack. Tapes of her shows continue to circulate among musicians, and The New York Times eulogized her as the "jewel of the dial."

· Lloyd Vogt, 60, a New Orleans architect, was a preservationist and author of several books including the 2002 Historic Buildings of the French Quarter (Pelican Press), which was published posthumously. Citing the city's chronically high rates of poverty, crime, poor education and deteriorating streets, Vogt once said: "Statistically, it makes no sense to live here. But we live here ... because we know it's a wonderful place to live, a place that we 'feel' and not one that measures quality of life by mathematical formulas."

· Frank Warren, 43, racked up 52.5 sacks in 13 seasons as a feared defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints -- fourth in team history behind Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Wayne Martin. Before Warren died, he was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame. "On the field, he was invincible," Saints Coach Jim Haslett said.

· Ishmael Joseph Combre, 7, died just as he spent the last two years of his life -- trying to defend his drug-addicted mother from her physically abusive boyfriend. Police say the man allegedly chased down the second-grade child, stabbing him to death in front of a church. Ishmael's death, one of 263 homicides by Christmas Eve 2002, signaled a resurgent murder rate after several years of relative calm.

The Populist and John Breaux

When Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash this fall, local activists mourned the loss of a national leader in Louisiana-related issues ranging from the Tallulah juvenile detention center to high-stakes testing to the Avondale labor movement. Often, activists recalled, Wellstone took a stand on local issues that Louisiana's legislators avoided.

Before he died, Wellstone spelled out his philosophy in his 2002 book The Conscience of a Liberal -- and also recalled the following event from his initial visit to Washington in 1990 as a candidate for U.S. Senate: "My trips to Washington, D.C., as the Democratic candidate from Minnesota were a disaster. I met with Senator John Breaux, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and explained to him how we would win: an all-out grassroots campaign in an old green bus, lots of volunteers, café politics, populist economics, and campaigning against big-money politics. John (whom I like and whose company I enjoy) wanted to know how much money I had raised. That was the end of the conversation."

Developing Story

After about a year and a half of debate over developer Historic Restoration Inc.'s proposal to develop the site of the former St. Thomas housing project, the $320 million plan may soon break ground. In late November, the City Council voted to approve the project's financing, which hinges on revenue from the planned Wal-Mart Supercenter to be built on the lower Garden District site. The state Bond Commission this month also gave the project its green light

HRI president Pres Kabacoff predicts construction on the site will begin within the next two months, with the Wal-Mart up and running about a year after work starts. Critics of his plan include preservationists, lower Garden District residents and business owners, and several St. Thomas residents. Some are suing HRI over the planned development, saying the big-box store doesn't belong in the historic neighborhood and questioning the plan's funding.

HRI isn't the only entity to earn preservationists' scorn; the Urban Conservancy recently editorialized on its Web site (www.urbanconservancy.org) that New Orleans newspapers, including Gambit Weekly, offered "scant critical analysis" of the project. Of Gambit's recent article focusing on Kabacoff and critic Brod Bagert Jr., the Conservancy criticized the "personality" approach by writing, "When in doubt, take cues from People Magazine." Gambit, the group opined, provided little coverage of the project due to its mayoral endorsement of project supporter Ray Nagin. As to the other media outlets: The Times-Picayune follows the motto "If you can't say something nice, bury it," and the shifting editorial leadership at the New Orleans CityBusiness explains why the paper subscribes to the philosophy "Sometimes, you gotta go along to get along."

Focus on Film

Premiering locally such fascinating works as Auto Focus, Naqoyqatsi and Bloody Sunday while utilizing more venues than ever (eight), the 14th annual New Orleans Film Festival enjoyed its highest-ever turnout with 9,500 attendees. The town was also abuzz over the filming of the $60 million Runaway Jury (starring Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman).

With recent tax incentives passed by the state legislature and what initially feels like a renewed commitment on the city's part, the film community and business in New Orleans are optimistic. Next year, which should feature at least one more major motion picture project (and, finally, the filming of A Confederacy of Dunces), should be a leading indicator for the city's future as a player in the biz.

Among this year's festival attendees, native New Orleanian Godfrey Reggio may go down in cinema history as one of the most important figures in the avant-garde film movement. His 1983 work, Koyaanisqatsi, married images and Philip Glass' meditative score for a groundbreaking work; in 2000, the Library of Congress added the film to its elite National Film Registry to be preserved in its archive system.

Reggio finally completed his Qatsi trilogy this year with Naqoyqatsi (Life as War); he returned to his hometown in October to screen the film at the New Orleans Film Festival. Naqoyqatsi is another meditation on the dynamic tension that exists between man and technology -- with Glass once again on board and legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma turning in a stunning guest solo on the score.

"What is interesting about Godfrey is he seems to be go back to the time when film was an art form," says Glass. "He has something to say, and he wants people to hear it."

 

T-P and F

This fall, Gambit Weekly learned that our colleagues over at The Times-Picayune were discovering that incoming obscene email messages were getting bounced back to their senders. In other words, if an investigative reporter was sent a message stating, "There's a big f--king embezzlement going down at City Hall, and here's the name of the man doing it," the sender would receive an automatic reply under the heading "Offensive Language Detected," stating, "It is against The Times-Picayune's email policy to accept any email message that contains offensive or profane language." And since the new filter hadn't been announced to staff, the reporter never would have known about it.

Following our September article and a subsequent T-P column by James Gill, the daily appears to have changed its policy. In September, we conducted a series of informal tests by sending expletive-laden emails to various T-P staffers. Messages containing the "F-word" were blocked. Recently, we repeated our tests, and we hear that all F-word messages are now going through loud and clear.

Friends disagreed over how Ruth Grace Moulon, better known as "Ruthie the Duck Lady," should live out her twilight years. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Friends disagreed over how Ruth Grace Moulon, better known as "Ruthie the Duck Lady," should live out her twilight years.
Will the new Jackson Square benches pass the Tuba Fats test? - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Will the new Jackson Square benches pass the Tuba Fats test?
Stephen Ambrose left the nation a trove of American history. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Stephen Ambrose left the nation a trove of American history.

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