We at GAMBIT lost our Founding Father and longtime mentor on Sept. 19 when Gary Esolen, the paper's first editor and publisher, died at East Jefferson General Hospital after a brief illness. He was 75.
In addition to his groundbreaking work at Gambit, Gary co-founded and served as first executive director of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation (NOTMC). In his many civic and professional endeavors, Gary was a passionate advocate for his adopted hometown of New Orleans.
Born in Hancock, New York, Gary attended Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit liberal arts college — whose name, appropriately enough, matches that of the founder of New Orleans. At Le Moyne, Gary met several New Orleanians who influenced him, including civil rights leader Rudy Lombard and future state Sen. Hank Braden. Gary earned a master's degree at Syracuse University and finished his coursework for a doctorate at Cornell University. He was a Wordsworth Scholar.
Gary left academia to work as a writer and made a list of cities to which he might relocate. According to his wife Valeri, "New Orleans won, as he felt he could find a place here and become part of it."
Gary Esolen very much became part of New Orleans. He arrived on New Year's Eve 1978 and set up shop in the microfiche room of Loyola University's library, where he read newspapers going back 50 years. He got a gig at the alt-weekly Figaro. When Figaro fell into decline, he and local businessman and former newspaperman Philip Carter, who previously published the Vieux Carre Courier, launched Gambit in early 1981.
In his column, "Standpoint," Gary spoke truth to power in words that continue to resonate today. His first column, for example, was about the city's "near-panic over crime."
"Something has gone wrong. Crimes which people can almost dismiss from their minds when they happen in housing projects, or even in the French Quarter, are now happening in quiet Uptown neighborhoods, and it is terrifying," Gary wrote, noting that the real problem was deeper, more vexing: poverty, inequality and racism. He concluded, "In the long run, to save this city from terrible trials, we must do something about the problems of poverty and unemployment. If we don't, the consequences will be as inevitable as a relentless column of figures in an actuarial table."
From its earliest days through today, Gambit has reflected Gary's passion for New Orleans and his sense of mission. The paper's role in championing more aggressive local utility regulation and equal rights for all citizens, as well as its political endorsements, were all part of Gary's vision. He also created the paper's tradition of naming one or more locals "New Orleanian of the Year."
My wife, Margo DuBos, who succeeded Gary as Gambit publisher in 1987, remembers him as "a bold thinker who communicated his ideas with passion and intelligence."
"I was fortunate to work for Gary in the 1980s, when New Orleans needed an alternative voice," Margo recalled. "His many civic discussions in Gambit and in the public arena on race, the economy, tourism and urban planning shaped so much of the positive progress we see in the city today."
I often called Gary Gambit's spiritual godfather, a term of profound endearment that still doesn't do him justice. He handled errant reporters and their flawed copy with equal measures of sensitivity and certainty. More than an editor, he made everyone who wrote for him a better storyteller and a better person. I could not have become an editor without first having worked for Gary Esolen.
'Gary combined his talents of long-range visioning and laser-like focus to create opportunities that to this day have continued to benefit our community.'
— Mark Romig, president of NOTMC
My favorite example of Gary's deft touch as an editor: In my early days with Gambit, I turned in a column that was more a rant than an analysis. Most editors would have torn it up and scolded me for being so unprofessional. Instead, Gary called me and, in his deeply resonant voice, said, "I don't think you want to say this, but come see me and let's talk about it." He calmly walked me off the ledge in a way that became a lifelong lesson. I think of that day often. His voice will always be in my head.
A political liberal, Gary was also a nonjudgmental realist. He gave a big break to an aspiring young political writer named Quin Hillyer — a ruby-red Republican even as a youngster — by recommending him to Gambit after Gary left the paper. On Gary's recommendation, Hillyer was hired and eventually became managing editor.
"Gary Esolen was one of the most fascinating men I've ever met: bohemian in one sense and yet highly cultured; extremely practical and yet a dreamer — and always generous with his time and his advice," Hillyer recalled. "Gary loved interesting people; he loved great conversation; and he loved New Orleans. He was a great soul."
Gary was one of the few people I would call a renaissance man. He loved nothing more than long, deep conversations about a wide array of subjects. He was also a poet, playwright and actor.
Former New Orleans City Councilman Brod Bagert, who is now a performing poet, recalls Gary as "my teacher as a poet. In our first conversation about poetry — 10 minutes while driving in the Lower 9th Ward — he gave me a clearer insight into the essence of poetry than all of my undergraduate teachers combined. The world of poetry that I inhabit as a professional performing poet is the world according to Gary Esolen."
At NOTMC, Gary worked with then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy to create and fund the fledgling city tourism commission. "He was a visionary, particularly with regard to increasing discretionary tourism," Barthelemy said. "At that time the city was primarily relying on conventions, but Gary felt we needed to attract more discretionary tourists. ... Gary was a key partner in that effort."
Mark Romig, current president and CEO of NOTMC, called Gary "one of our great modern-day entrepreneurs. ... Gary combined his talents of long-range visioning and laser-like focus to create opportunities that to this day have continued to benefit our community."
Even after leaving Gambit and NOTMC, Gary stayed in New Orleans and pursued his love of places and cultures. He and his wife Valeri LeBlanc, who also was his business partner for 15 years, founded PLACES Consulting (www.placesconsulting.net) and worked with several cities to promote tourism.
In addition to his wife Valeri, Gary is survived by two stepsons, Wil and Wes LeBlanc, and many friends. A celebration of his life will be held in the coming months.
Bagert offered the best words I can find to sum up Gary: "Time and again I was witness to Gary's habit of undertaking stunning acts of selfless generosity. These were not just single acts of goodness but long-term commitments that exceeded all reasonable expectation. And this, I think, may be the passcode to the inner function of Gary Esolen: As a publisher, columnist, citizen-poet and friend, Gary structured his life as a gift unique — one that will never be replaced and one that continues to give even now in the hour of his passing."