Edward Gordon “Ned” Randolph, the former Louisiana State Representative, former Louisiana State Senator, and former five-term Mayor of his hometown of Alexandria died in the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 4, 2016 from complications due to Alzheimer’s, a disease he had been quietly and courageously battling for much of the last years of his life.
Like hundreds of others from Central Louisiana, I loved and cherished Ned Randolph. During his active years in public life, Ned was a visionary leader and a humble, decent soul who spent his entire career as an optimistic evangelist for the people of his hometown.
For me, he was the first celebrity- at least as far as I was concerned- that I’d ever met. He sat in front of my family every Sunday at First United Methodist Church in Alexandria, often only by himself. At the risk of embarrassing my little sister, who was probably in junior high at the time, she swooned over his handsome and gentle smile; my brother and I teased her that she had a crush on him.
As it turns out, she wasn’t the only one who was charmed by him. Before he was mayor, he served in the State Senate in Baton Rouge, and a mutual friend of ours, in reflecting on his passing, noted, “All the young female reporters, myself included, had crushes on him.” In fact, for a short time in the early 1980s, Ned dated the popular soap opera actress Diedre Hall, which became the talk of the town and a source of intrigue for national entertainment gossip magazines for a couple of years: What was it about this small town mayor from a place almost no one in America had even heard of that could sweep a Hollywood celebrity off of her feet?
Ned was never a playboy, and he never possessed the bravado or the swagger of other politicians of his era. I would call him a choirboy, however, even though he was the Mayor of Alexandria for an unprecedented five terms, he was probably too shy for the church choir.
However, he did find true love, his princess, Deborah, whose devotion and compassion are remarkable and pure.
But make no mistake: Ned Randolph was a leader, and without any question, he was the most-effective and longest-serving Mayor of any city in modern Louisiana history. When he took over the Mayor’s Office from John “Tillie” Snyder, Alexandria had become a national laughingstock.
Tillie, famously, decided to stock the city swimming pools with catfish, with the hope of turning them into catfish ponds. He didn’t account for the chlorine and the other chemicals, and all of the catfish died torturous deaths. When he was led to believe his own employees were spying on him from the bathroom, he ordered the removal of the bathroom doors. A few years later, he installed eavesdropping equipment throughout City Hall. And perhaps not surprisingly, he spent a portion of his last year in office in a mental institution. Years later and finally and permanently out of office, he endorsed David Duke’s campaigns for Senate and Governor.
This is what Ned Randolph inherited on his very first day: A Mayor’s Office that had become an insane asylum.
But Ned Randolph was the polar opposite of Tillie Snyder: Ned was an Ivy League man; he’d earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton, one of only a small handful from Alexandria who had ever attended such a prestigious university. He had a law degree from Tulane and had already amassed experience in the legislature. He was charming and dashing and legitimately brilliant, and there was no one else in the world more capable of returning dignity, respect, and professionalism to the city’s top office.
Under his leadership, Alexandria built a convention center hugging the banks of the Red River, a world-class performing arts center, a riverfront amphitheater, and an award-winning airport terminal, which is considered one of the nation’s best small airports. The Alexandria Zoo expanded; the city built new parks. New commercial and residential development was a constant, and the local real estate market was healthy and steady.
To be sure, development was not always equal. Some areas suffered while others thrived, but on the whole, Alexandria flourished during Ned’s 20 years in office. He left it a much better city than it was when he found it.
Like many cities, Alexandria has had its fair share of struggle with violent crime. Ned once claimed that the most challenging time of his career was the day two Alexandria police officers were killed in a botched SWAT operation, and although it happened years ago, the community still reels from it. There was nothing that Ned could have done, as Mayor, to change the course of fate that particular day, but he shared in the burden and in the grief.
Ned’s crowning achievement as Mayor of Alexandria occurred on March 18, 1996. It was bone-chillingly cold, a Monday, and my parents had taken all three of us out of school so we could watch Air Force One touch down and maybe, just maybe have the chance to meet the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
A few years prior, a man named Dick Cheney decided to close England Air Force Base, which was Alexandria’s most important economic engine. We were doomed, we thought. There would be no way to recover from something like this. No one had ever done it before.
But under the leadership of Ned Randolph and because of the vision and hardwork of people like Jim Meyer, Alexandria created a model of base re-use that no one had ever conceived. On that cold March morning, the President of the United States was there to turn over the federal government’s keys to a newly created England Authority. After Ned introduced him, Clinton clutched the mic and said:
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting in the cold and the wind. I am so glad to be here. I want to thank the Tioga High School band for playing. Didn’t they do a great job? Mayor Randolph, Mayor Baden, Senator Johnston, Senator Breaux, Congressman Fields, Congressman Jefferson, Chairman Meyer, I am delighted to be here, and I thank you for waiting for me.
I want to talk just a minute, very briefly, about what you have done here with England Air Force Base and why that’s a model of what I hope we’ll see more of all across America. You know, when the cold war ended and we were moving into this global economy, the first thing that happened that scared a lot of Americans was the need to downsize the military and the plain need that the country had to reduce the size of our bases. A lot of people were afraid, but you people were not afraid. You worked together, and you were determined to make some good things happen here. And I have to tell you that I have been all over this country looking at military bases. I have worked with communities all over America, personally, to help them start their communities up and to use these bases as economic assets. There is no place in the entire United States that has done a better job than Alexandria has.
Now, what I want to say, even in all this wind, is that there are other challenges facing us. You read in the press, I’m sure, that some big companies, for example, are restructuring and laying off a lot of people. All the time in this economy there are jobs being created, jobs being abolished, jobs being created, jobs being abolished. But what I want to say to you is that this country is moving in the right direction. We have 8.4 million more jobs today than we had 3 years ago because the American people, when they work together, can find ways to solve problems, meet challenges, and move forward. And if we will commit ourselves to a few simple things, educating all of our children and providing education for adults whenever they lose jobs, the moment they lose jobs; making the most of our resources; selling America’s products around the world; and taking the things we have in this country, like these military bases, and turning them into opportunities; and if we will commit to say if a person loses a job they at least ought to be able to carry their health insurance and their pension with them so they can take care of their families when they start anew; if we will commit ourselves to making it possible for people to start small businesses and for every community in America to participate in the economic recovery, then this country is going to do just fine.
I want you to know, when I became President, because I had been through a base closing in my home State, I started a whole new program to get the Pentagon to move more quickly, to move properties out and give them to the communities so that they could be used to generate jobs. And that is what we have done now all across America, and we’re using you as a model.
Now let me say that there’s one official reason we’re all out here on this windy day, and that is that I am here to take the next step in the official transition of this Air Force base to the central Louisiana community by formally presenting the deed for 165 acres of the base to Jim Meyer. So I’d like to ask him to come up here and let me present the deed. Mr. Meyer?
Here it is. It is now yours.
Mr. Meyer. Thank you.
The President. Thank you again. God bless you. It’s great to see you. I’ve had a great day.
Clinton worked the rope line, and somehow, he managed to shake my completely frozen hand.
Now, I’d met two celebrities: President Bill Clinton and Mayor Ned Randolph.
As I got older and after he retired, Ned would always treat me like a good, old friend. Until his passing, I didn’t realize that he’d known me since I was too young to remember and that I’ve known him longer than almost anyone other than family.
That is why our familiarity seemed easy, at least until the last time I saw him two years ago, before it simply became obvious that he was in the twilight.
After he left office, I never spoke politics with him. Instead, we just joked about nonsense. He possessed this sweet, childlike laughter, and I know that Alzheimer’s doesn’t treat all days equal– and I’m sure it was a challenge for Deborah, his beautiful and remarkable wife, and for his children. But I’ll always remember his sense of humor and one other thing:
One Sunday, back when he was still well, at the First United Methodist Church, the preacher decided to re-enact John 13:1-17, in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Ned was assigned the role of Jesus, the feet washer, and my father was assigned as a disciple. It was a profound and moving moment for my father, both humbling and empowering.
John 13:12-17 reads: 12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Throughout his life, Ned Randolph taught me, my father, and countless others what it means to be a servant leader.
We are a better, kinder, and more tolerant place because of the life of Edward G. “Ned” Randolph.
UPDATE: Earlier today, Alexandria honored the life of Mayor Ned Randolph with a wake at City Hall, and it was pitch perfect.
If you don’t understand what he meant to me and to my community, consider this: He was honored and remembered by members of Congress, the State Senate, the State House Mayor’s Offices, City Councils, and Commissioners. Governor John Bel Edwards- who is in Cuba on a trade mission- dispatched a personal letter to be read aloud. Mickey Mangun, who performed at both Clinton inaugurations, sang her heart out.
This wasn’t the funeral; that’ll happen on Saturday morning. This was the City of Alexandria paying tribute to someone who contributed more of his life’s work to my hometown than anyone else has ever done. They- we- did it right.
I thought I knew Ned’s entire biography, but Commissioner Jim Brown- who was Ned’s very first campaign manager (for Tulane Law Student President) and a colleague of his in the legislature- filled in some important details.
Before he was Mayor, Ned wrote Louisiana’s open meetings law; he expanded our public records laws, and he fought to ensure that state contracts for architectural and engineering services were awarded based on merit, as evaluated by a bipartisan committee (and not by the governor alone).
So, even if you never knew of him, even if you have never spent time in Alexandria- if you’re from Louisiana, you owe him a debt of gratitude for making our state government more accountable and more transparent than it was before he arrived.