Remembering a Louisiana original: John McKeithen

By JIM ENGSTER
President, Tiger Rag Magazine

It was reported last week that former Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen blessed a payment method to pacify the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Rights Era tumult of the late 1960s. McKeithen, who guided the state from 1964 to 1972, may have purchased peace in his home state by funneling money to the Klan through the Louisiana Sovereignty Commission.

For those who covered meetings of the LSU Board of Supervisors in the 1980s, McKeithen was a genuine character, a spectacular presence on a mundane panel and frequent adversary to Chancellor Jim Wharton and the splendidly gifted orator and fellow board member Camille Gravel. Equally brilliant, egotistical and autocratic, he reigned as a persuasive force on the board, even in defeat.

Big John was 65 and eleven years removed from the Capitol when he held court as embattled football Coach Jerry Stovall’s defense lawyer in 1983. His impassioned plea to retain Stovall was a rhetorical tour de force. Pacing, gesturing while raising and lowering his strong voice at precisely the most poignant moments, McKeithen, sporting a distinctive white mane took aim at Stovall’s nemesis, athletic director Bob Brodhead. A collective gasp could be heard in the jammed LSU System building when McKeithen pointed at the athletic director and counseled him to wear a bullet-proof vest.

The LSU Board voted 13-5 to fire Stovall, but McKeithen’s description of Brodhead having “the finesse of an elephant” stuck. Brodhead staggered through another turbulent 34 months, then was sacked as unceremoniously as he had kicked Stovall to the curb. Chancellor Jim Wharton found some “anonymous donors” in October of 1986, and Bottom Line Bob was gone.

McKeithen operated with a populist fervor that another Public Service Commissioner named Huey Long showcased as on the hustings during Big John’s youth. Long’s birthplace in Winnfield is a mere 35 miles from McKeithen’s hometown, and the titan from Columbia was an heir to the Kingfish.

When Long was assassinated, McKeithen was 17 years old. He graduated from the LSU Law School and cut a striking pose with his muscular torso appearing ready to pop through his carefully fitted suits.

McKeithen embraced Huey’s vision for LSU to dominate the college sporting world. McKeithen oversaw an LSU football program that whipped Bear Bryant two of the last three times they met at the close of his tenure in Baton Rouge.

Coach Charles McClendon accepted McKeithen’s obsession with LSU football. The governor was as consumed in beating Alabama as he was in building the Louisiana Superdome and landing a plethora of plants still operating along the Mississippi River. Football practices and road games became essential to his duties as chief executive.

When LSU endured a devastating opening night defeat at Tiger Stadium to Texas A&M in 1970, McKeithen reacted to the 20-18 upset by the Aggies by punching out a window in the governor’s limousine. His pugilistic instincts served him well when he earned a pair of Bronze Stars in the Pacific Theatre during WWII.  They were less endearing to editorial writers a generation later who didn’t take losses by the Tigers quite as personally as Louisiana’s flamboyant governor did.

McKeithen’s dream to construct the Superdome arguably preserved the New Orleans downtown corridor, and the unlikely patron was a man from rural North Louisiana. McKeithen also acted as a catalyst for the construction of what is now the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Reflecting on the genesis of the PMAC during an interview on Dec. 8, 1990, McKeithen chuckled as he recalled how the plan was hatched in 1968 when a famous LSU graduate was speaking at the Cow Palace while seeking the nation’s highest office.

“LSU was determined to give Vice President Hubert Humphrey an honorary degree,” McKeithen said. “He had received his Master’s degree at LSU. The old Agricultural Coliseum was packed to the rafters, and the entire ROTC unit was present. The place was built for rodeos and for stock shows. The pigeons and the sparrows were all there. The aroma from the previous evening’s entertainment with the horses and cows was getting rather warm.  It was beginning to envelop us all.

“I was sitting with the president of the University, John Hunter.  A whole host of pigeons and sparrows started flying over the speaker’s platform. I turned to John and said, ‘We should build a decent arena.’ At that point, he rose to his feet, interrupted the ceremony and said, ‘Governor McKeithen just promised to build us a new Assembly Center.’”

McKeithen evolved from a segregationist candidate for governor in 1964 into a backer of racial inclusion. In our 1990 conversation, he spoke of breaking the color barrier in LSU athletics.

“Press Maravich was responsible for the first black basketball player at LSU. He called me one Sunday night and said the best player in Louisiana is black, and he won’t speak to me. I called Collis Temple’s dad and told him that his son would be treated as though he were my son. His father said, ‘Governor, you tell Coach Maravich we will be there in the morning.’’’

McKeithen was effective in keeping most of the top football talent in Louisiana at home as LSU secured Tommy Casanova and Bert Jones during his second term. McKeithen’s daughter, Rebecca, even married Bert’s favorite receiving target, his first cousin Andy Hamilton.

Big John described a near miss in his bid to bring LSU the player who might have led the Tigers to another national title.

“We brought Steve Worster from Bridge City, Texas to the governor’s office,” McKeithen recalled. “He wasn’t a real big man, but Coach McClendon said he was the best running back in America. I said, ‘Steve, sit in the governor’s chair. How does that feel?’

“Steve said, ‘I love it.’

“I asked him, ‘Why don’t you come to LSU and help me run this state?’

“Steve ended up signing with the University of Texas, was a first team All-American. He almost won the Heisman Trophy and led Texas to the national championship. Years later, Texas Coach Darrell Royal said Worster didn’t speak to him for two weeks after his visit to the governor’s office. Coach Royal told me that Steve said, ‘They really put it on strong in Louisiana.’”

McKeithen died on June 4, 1999 and is buried with his wife and two sons at his home in Columbia. On his tombstone, a quote from his first gubernatorial campaign is preserved.

“I wasn’t born to material wealth, nor do I have claim to an aristocratic name. But if I am elected governor, it will prove that any mother’s son can aspire to the highest political office of this state. I’ve come this far because you the people have given me your support — with all the professional politicians, power brokers and big money people fighting me every step of the way. Because I owe you so much, you can be assured when I raise my hand to take the oath of office as Governor of Louisiana, there will be a prayer in my heart that God will always guide me to do what is best for the state and all the people in it. We’ll win this race, but I need your help. Won’t you help me?”

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