Thursday, April 26, 2007

Indelible Faces of AmeriCorps

April 20, 2007
Holiday Inn Convention Center
Austin, Tex.

Dear Family and Friends,

I apologize. This column has little about New Orleans, but much about AmeriCorps. President Clinton formed the AmeriCorps in the first-term of his administration.

Meet Bill Pride.

Retired Marine, Bill was one of the first to enter Vietnam in 1965. "They called me 'Hawk' back then," he says. The call-name circulated military bases, enemy and friendly, for two years in Vietnam. Bill was a Marine Force Recon. As a sniper his real identity was known by few.

Today, Bill and Janis, his wife of over 20 years, are AmeriCorps members. And they are only two of the many fascinating faces in the Holiday Inn convention room this week.

In late 1965, Bill’s mother Eugenie, received a letter. “The President of the United States regrets to inform you…”

Eugenie’s son was dead to her for almost a year.

I had dinner with Bill on Tuesday night.

“I had to jump out of a helicopter that was shot down,” he says.

He was behind enemy lines for 27 days before being found. His weight went from 180 to 118.

He and one other Marine jumped. Three others died in the chopper. Wounded and battered, Bill had no idea that his family and friends thought he was dead.

This was October 1965. Flash forward to May 1966. Bill has successfully reintegrated into Recon-detail and because of his sniper security clearance has no contact without the outside world.

But in May 1966, from a Red Cross phone, Bill called his mom.

“We got a letter saying you were dead,” Eugenie said.

‘“I’m not. I’m talking to you,” he said.

“I don’ t know who this is, but it’s a sick joke,” Eugenie said.

“No, really it’s me.”

Bill returned from Vietnam and entered into a successful business-life as a citizen. In 1995, he and Janis moved to Winnsborough, Tex. population 2, 439. On a trip to the post-office he stuck up a conversation with the post-master, a fellow Vietnam veteran and Marine.

It took a bit to connect.

“What was your call-name?” the post-master said.

“Hawk,” Bill said.

“I’m Bluejay,” the postmaster said.

The small-town postmaster was Bill’s mission commander in Vietnam nearly 30 years prior.

Due to security they had never met.

The Prides will be traveling throughout 14 counties in Northern Texas raising awareness for a non-profit called “Bridging the Gap.”

Meet Torrie Willis.

She’s 19. Her daughter McKinley just turned one. And she’s five months pregnant with a boy. She likes the ring “Courtney” has.

Her sentiments about Poverty—the ailment her mission hopes to eradicate, was better than any sociologist I’ve ever heard. She peeled the layers of public perception.

She told us about many Arkansas-welfare citizens whom she’d consider lazy.

And about the generations of family poverty that basically brainwash those that come after.

And about the citizens who work so hard to get out but can’t.

Then she told us about her.

She’s 19, and living below the poverty line. Born and raised in the community she’ll be serving, Forrest City, Arkansas, Willis is close to an associate’s degree in Biology and even closer to the St. Francis County Community Development Corporation.

She volunteered there last summer. “I really liked helping people.”

I wonder why more people aren’t compelled.

Willis, a Forrest City, Ark. native, will serve 12 months in her community.

Meet Todd M.

At 44, he’s been a practicing attorney since 1991. Todd isn’t hard to miss. He has a big smile and big voice.

And he’s been in a wheelchair for 23 years. After the car accident, he remembers lying in the hospital bed.


The way he tells it now, “I realized I had nowhere to go but up.”

The C5-6 spinal cord injury is what happened to him. Todd is considered a quadriplegic but has some use of his extremities.

Equipped with an endearing wit, you wouldn't ever know the depths of Todd's accident.

Todd will be providing legal advice and services to local organizations with aspirations of achieving 501C3 tax-exempt non-profit status.

Meet Thuy Quach and Ba Truong.

These Vietnamese women, one a naturalized citizen and one a permanent resident had a translator. But I don’t think they needed one.

I spoke slowly and often found myself forgetting to conjugate verbs.

Ba, 63, has been in Houston, Tex. for nine years. For the past seven she was a florist in her largely Vietnamese community. “160,000 Vietnamese in Houston,” she said. She is there with a large family with a new addition soon. Her 28-year-old daughter is seven months pregnant.

Thuy, 56, moved to the States two years ago to take care of her 80-year-old mother. She moved from Qui Nhon City and began in Seattle. “Climate is too cold,” she said. Thuy was a middle-school teacher in Vietnam.

The two will serve their year at the Center For Faith and Health in Houston. Both will be coordinating health screening programs for Vietnamese residents.

Bye-Bye Austin.

Over 50 American citizens and Thuy, a legal resident, will begin or continue their year as an AmeriCorps member this week.

Others members of interest.

Christopher Holder, an 18-year-old high school graduate with a deep-Louisiana twang will be a Volunteer Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in Webster, La.

Cory Holbert, who worked the last five years in a guitar shop, will be promoting water cleanliness for the Audubon Society in Arkansas.

John Haley, master’s educated and professional photographer is going through a career change. He wants to work in non-profits from now on. A big task, he will be helping Orleans Parish neighbor, St. Bernard, rebuild post-KATRINA.

Stephanie Erickson, 23. It was crazy to see her because we went to college together at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She’s always been the type to do this. But I had no idea I would see her at the Holiday Inn in Austin, Tex. Erickson will be working in the Austin Second Harvest Food Bank.

Ares Saldana, 21. A University of Texas-El Paso graduate, Saldana will be working for Border Fair Housing in El Paso. The organization fights for suitable living for Latinos in El Paso.

Lauren Tichenor. An undergrad degree from a prestigious Scottish university and a Masters from a school in Australia, Tichenor finds herself in Claiborne Parish, La. “Somewhere near Shreveport,” she says.

And many more.

The faces are incredible. It's funny how things work in New Orleans and in other struggling parts of the country. I realize now that the AmeriCorps members are a part of a process, one with no viewable end, but a purpose none the less.



To view more about a year of service in the AmeriCorps go to

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thank you to Register-Guard Columnist Bob Welch in Eugene, Ore.

Family and Friends--

An old professor decided to write a column about how I found my way to New Orleans. Very flattering.

Thanks Professor Welch.

To read the column, Click here:


Monday, April 23, 2007

This week's column picked up by Omaha World Herald

Family and Friends--

Omaha World Herald picked up this week's column/blog. Had me follow Omahan Scott Gutschewski (GOOT-CHEF-SKI) at the PGA TOUR's Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

70 and sunny. Food and Drinks. Locker and Player's Dining room access--all very fun.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Perceptions of some Post-KATRINA Tulane Undergraduates

Perceptions of some Post-KATRINA Tulane Undergraduates

New Orleans, La.
April 14, 2007

Family and Friends—

Snuck into a Tulane University Medical School Formal the other night.

A band played, top-shelf liquor served, we’re talking the works. I found the party’s coordinator, a Med Student named David.

“I take pictures at Tulane events for free,” I said.

“Great, grab a drink,” he said.

By 11:00 pm these masters of MCATs danced without self-consciousness. Some future-MD’s even crowd-surfed. Quite a sight.

After KATRINA, Tulane closed for an entire semester. The storm caused $200 million in damage and the university eliminated 580 faculty and staff positions to stay afloat.

All of the Tulane medical students I met spent the semester in Waco, Tex, home of Baylor University. Don Owens, a chaplain and professor at Tulane Med says, “Baylor Med opened their home and did everything for us.” The 2006 installment of the party I crashed happened in Texas.

The medical students, it seems, are glad to be back. LSU’s main medical hospital across the street from Tulane Medical Center has yet to reopen. It’s eerie given the size of the structure.

Tulane undergraduates and graduate students who stuck with their University deserve recognition. Leadership cut many academic, athletic and student programs and services. Returning was, in many respects, a leap of faith.

Some changed majors. Some lost professors who were influential in attending Tulane from the beginning. And the memories of “what it used to be” will always remain for them.

But there is a community knock on the some of the Tulane undergraduate population: “East-coast aristocrats who don’t care about New Orleans,” they say. According to Tulane’s Office of the Registrar, 23 percent of the undergraduate population comes from the Northeast. There are more northeastern undergraduates at Tulane than New Orleans’ natives.

Others say, “They come here for a four-year party.”

It’s understandable that there is apathy from some of the Tulane undergraduate population. The Tulane friends I’ve made from the East Coast don’t dispute this perception.

I must also add that it tends to be directed at New York state and New Jersey students. A little Texas too.

This is obviously a generalization. Many invested, passionate and determined out-of-state undergraduates, New Yorkers and New Jersey students included, aid the New Orleans recovery.

The apathy is a reflection of the average American college at the average American University. Many students studied at other places during the semester away.

Colleges like Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. to Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia, and everywhere between.

And at the end, they all had a decision to make.

Almost 90 percent returned.

Expecting any more of 18-21 year olds is excessive optimism. Yes, KATRINA devastated New Orleans. And many of the out-of-state students lost possessions in the storm. They didn’t, for the most-part, lose homes, lose heirlooms or lose family members.

They did, however, return without the guarantee of a fulfilling academic future in a slashed, cut and mended opening Tulane semester.

The community-apathetic students still spend money and proclaim to their friends scattered about the country and the world about New Orleans’ majesty.

Let’s face it. There are leaders and followers, shepherds and sheep. And not everyone can carry a cane. Or sport a really long beard.

What people forget is that they came back to Tulane.

However, there will be an evolution of the Tulane undergraduate student.

After KATRINA, Tulane President Scott Cowen and the school’s board dramatically changed undergraduate requirements for graduation. The changes apply to any Tulane student who enrolls after KATRINA.

A main component of the new requirements is each student must complete a service-learning course with a community component during there first two years. Another similarly-scoped service course must be completed during the student’s last two years.

What does this mean? Tulane leadership hopes it will attract more civic-minded students.

Nothing happens overnight, but Tulane—its students, faculty, staff and alumni will be a major part of New Orleans’ recovery. Tulane President Scott Cowen's new graduation requirements reflect the post-KATRINA academic and community environment.

But I hope some who came before will help before they go.



Email me at with questions or concerns.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Incomparable Neti Vaan

April 15, 2007, 12:30 pm

400 Royal St.
New Orleans, La.
French Quarter Festival

Family and Friends,

After today, Neti Vaan could tell you she'd rather do calm.

Her band, VAVAVOOM sound checked today with winds whipping through the French Quarter. Vaan’s hair blew in her eyes. Background banners flapped and apathetic French Quarter Festival visitors probably felt sorry for the bunch.

From her first fiddle strum, the on-lookers collective apathy turned to awestruck. By the end, babies danced, mothers laughed and 100 attendees swelled to over 1,000.

Vaan, 49, has a gift. And it isn't the engineering prowess she has by trade. It's the fiddler in her nature. After graduating college, Vaan inspected buildings for code violations. She knew from the beginning it wouldn’t last.

Today, she plays to work. Or works to play, whichever you prefer. Her fiddle lights up Frenchman Street's Spotted Cat on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Mimi's in the Marigny has her and the VAVAVOOM team on Friday nights. Private parties are also a source of income.

I'm not a music critic, couldn’t even call myself a buff. But when I listen to VAVAVOOM, my ears are content.

One critic referred to Vaan fiddling as "haunting, soulful." The haunting tag doesn’t fit. There have been no nightmares in my cerebral view after a night with VAVAVOOM.

But a different critic said, "Bart Ramsey's powerful lyrics and melodies, and Neti Vaan's passionate fiddle playing combine on this enticing and typically wide-ranging gumbo that effortlessly takes in its stride texmex, mardigras, hotclub, gypsy bluegrass, country and barroom swing."


By the way, Bart Ramsey is VAVAVOOM's piano playing vocalist. And Vaan's ex-husband. It's great to know that even divorce can't stop a good thing.

Vaan and VAVAVOOM gained hundreds of new fans today.

Let's hope they come back to NOLA soon, but buy a CD before they go.



To hear Vaan and VAVAVOOM, go to Frenchman Street's the Spotted Cat on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Mimi's in the Marigny on Fridays. Shows typically start at 10 pm.

No Cover at either Venue.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Memories of Grandma Vivian's House

April 6, 2007
3010 Pauger St., 7th Ward
New Orleans, La.

Family and Friends--

First, a little back-story. The AmeriCorps and Tulane University have put me up in Tulane's Medical Center dorms for the year. My roommate, Jules, is a fellow AmeriCorps member and native New Orleanian. We have hit it off since day one.

He was journalism major, I was journalism major. He uses "word" to end every sentence. I use "bro."

Jules had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. He spent a year and half in Houston. You see, Jules wanted to come back right away. But his mom, a diabetic coupled with seizure and aneurysm issues couldn't trust the uncertain medical care in New Orleans.

He set her up, joined the AmeriCorps and returned home.

On Good Friday, Jules and I went to a barbecue at his boss' place.

The barbecue was close to his grandma's house he said. So we went. Jules had told me about this house. How it flooded. How his grandma hadn't seen it yet, 19 months after the storm. Grandma Vivian currently lives in Dallas.

We drove by his high school, St. Augustine. A private, all-boys prep school. St. Augs as it’s called down here, boasts the best brass band training ground in the City. At St. Augs, it's harder to make the band than the basketball team. Last week I went to a show at one of the Crescent City's best jazz clubs that featured three 17-year-old St. Augians.

About two blocks away from Jules' school is Pauger St. We take a left. The dilapidated houses squeeze us in on both sides.

Six or so houses up, stands what used to be a comfy single- family yellow home.

3010 Pauger St: Grandma's house.

A note left by one of Jules' family members reads something like this, "This house is due to be gutted on or about September, 2006."

The note is true.

It's crazy to see a house down to its planks the first time. Now, my eyes see it is as pseudo-normalcy. At least in New Orleans.

As Jules walks around the house and looks in Grandma’s windows and her backyard, you can tell he is reminiscing.

Finally, he comes out with some stories.

"Remember that room your relatives have that they never want you to go in?" he says.

"Oh, yeah," I say. He points through the window into a no-walled room.

"One time, my sister and I snuck in there," he says. "We broke the head of an owl made out of sea shells.”

He says they put the head back on and bolted out.

"My grandma never said a word about," he says with a smile that shows about 15 years of relief from the day they broke the statue.

Jules would come over to Grandma's house when his father, Jules Raymond Sr. was going through chemo. Grandma took care of her son while he battled cancer.

Jules hadn't hit double-digit age yet. His two sisters were even younger.

Jules was 10 when Jules Sr. passed.

Today, Jules' sister, Lauren, is a 2004 Harvard graduate. Rachel, the youngest, is a senior at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Jules Jr. graduated from NYU.

The Goins family obviously handles adversity well.

It makes me proud to be in New Orleans and see Jules here today. He works 70 hours a week helping New Orleans' neighborhoods get back on the feet at the Neighborhoods Partnership Network.

Since I work at City Hall, only 300 yards from our apartment, I usually joke with him about having the place all to myself.

He needs a break. But I doubt he'll take one. It isn't like him.

Best to everyone,


To donate to the Jules’ organization, the Neighborhoods Partnership Network contact him @ or visit their website,

Saturday, April 7, 2007

New Orleans City Park Golf Course: Once a TOUR Stop, Always a TOUR Stop?

New Orleans City Park
Week of March 15, 2007
New Orleans
, La.

Family and Friends--

The New Orleans City Park, massive and pre-KATRINA wonderful, is one of "America's Great Parks."

Post-KATRINA, people frisbee, dogs walk, and the solitude of a sunset is still an experience that hundreds of New Orleans' residents experience daily.

But you won't find golfers, anymore. Well, I take that back. A rinky-dink driving range still operates.

But what used to be in City Park? Three championship-length golf courses. One, with a world-class pedigree and former host of the PGA TOUR stop in New Orleans from 1939-1962.

Also, the golf courses were the City Park's largest revenue generator.

Today, on the roof of the Bayou Oaks columned clubhouse, a blue tarp covers much of the structure's left side. The green front door swings open.

I go in. I have a sand wedge in my hand--for the rats.

The clubhouse is massive. When a structure is gutted to its planks, you can really get a feel for square-footage, for the true size of it.

It looks like the Bayou Oaks clubhouse had several rooms: a proshop, male and female locker rooms, a bar and restaurant, and possibly a bag room/caddy shack.

The only sense of organization around this place is actually outside. It's a Xerox machine. One of the big ones that once was capable a major collations, copies and faxes. The glass underneath the lid is cracked badly, wires and chips obviously flooded.

As I walk out the back door down the path that Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer used to take to the Championship Course's first tee.

I have to step around the cracked concrete and into the unkempt bush. The course is totally overgrown now. Crabgrass. Weeds. Dandelions. You name it, it's there. I walked out to the blue 200 yard line painted on the first hole cart place. I could see what this place used to look like.

What Palmer and Hogan used to see. What thousands of amateurs had seen before August, 2005.

The first tee waiting table and starter booth still stand. All the signs remain. I wonder where the starters, typically old retired military or school teachers, have gone. I'm sure many of them evacuated hoping their golf salvation would be the same when they came back.

As it turns out, several thousand people have not been able to return to New Orleans. Going off of evacuee statistics, many people who love this place more than I can know haven't seen what I'm seeing.
And that's sad.

The marble first tee marker is cracked in half. The 150-yard marker in what looks like the 18th fairway is being overcome by grass.

Hardly the same walk Hogan or Palmer made up the old-18th.

I'm sure people walk through and say, "This used to be the Bayou Oaks golf course."

Soon I hope, it will be a course again. Then someone could check it off as another "used to be" revitalized from the post-KATRINA rebuild list. It'd sure be nice to see people out here again.

At least the sunset is beautiful tonight. And somewhere on these grounds a frisbee game is finishing and a woman walks her dog. A man reads his book.

It's a start.

Best to you,


To donate to the rebuilding of the 1,300 acre New Orleans City Park, visit:

The Mississippi River and an Unexpected Friend

April, 2007
New Orleans, La.
Note: Ben Rankin is an ALIAS

Family and Friends--

I am sitting on the banks of the Mississippi this morning, the water pretty cold and the wind even more abnormal, from what I hear, for this time of year.

The skyline from this spot is incredible. St. Louis Cathedral 600 yards to the North. Downtown Big Easy to the West.

Up walks a man, *Ben Rankin, tired. He's been up all night.

It's 10:00 am.

"What's up, bro," he says. As we talk, about the weather, the river, the "where ya' from's" I start taking his picture. It's been about 10 minutes since he walked up.

Ben doesn't flinch. But, he does put his head in his lap for a solid 30 seconds.

"I cheated on my wife last night," he says. Ben isn't the type to cry, but if he was, I'm guessing they'd be streaming. Instead, he finishes his sentences with a soft "bro."

Ben can't believe it, he says. He's been clean for two years and has new job, three-weeks old.

"I had money in my account," he says."So I took 200 out and went to Bourbon St."

A strip club on Bourbon St.

"We were doing powder, everything, bro," he says about the stripper and himself who he later ended up sleeping with.

I ask him if he's still high. "No, I'm coming down," he says. "It's bad, real bad."

"Are you going to tell your wife?"

This is the first time I see Ben smile--one of those "Are you crazy, fool?" smiles.

"I prayed," he says. He's come to the river to reflect upon his mistakes.

I'm not sure if Ben is more upset about the cocaine or the infidelity. As we keep talking about the drugs, I tell him that kids my age are big into cocaine.

"The other night," I said, "I walked into a party and five kids were doing it on the kitchen table."

Like a buffet du coke.

Ben is looking over the Mississippi, it would take an Olympic swimmer to get to the other bank.

"You know," he says, "drugs have ruined so many brothers down here."

We talk about the New Orleans murder scene. Turf wars, retaliations and drug trade, he says. No one cares about the sanctity of life, Ben says.

He grew up in the projects north of Clairborne Ave.
Ben knows about drugs.

But the father of two tells me that last night was the biggest mistake of his life.

"I was doing so good, bro," he says.

We exchange numbers. He says he'll call. As we both get up to the leave the train tracks that run parallel with the river are in use.

We're stuck between river and railroad for five minutes. Ben, between wife and life.

Me, just between a river and railroad, I guess.

Best to everyone,


To donate or help with the New Orleans drug problem Ben talked about, visit, a New Orleans drug rehab center with 130 beds.

Reflections on the Lower Ninth Ward

Family and Friends--

Report from the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, La.
March, 31 2007

I am not a New Orleans expert.
I’ve only been here 24 days.

Sometimes I wonder what Iraq looks like. But after today, I know what a war zone is. There weren’t many bullets flying in the lower 9th ward in and after the storm, but certainly, Hurricane Katrina destructed the City and lower 9th ward like bullets, mortar, and bombs have done in Iraq.

Houses have no windows. Houses have no doors. Houses have no roofs. Concrete foundations sit isolated and open, almost waiting for a DJ so they too can serve a purpose again. Only this time, these foundations can only become makeshift dance floors.

But there isn’t much celebrating going on in this neighborhood. Really, there isn’t much of anything going on.

On one block, David Williams and two other neighbors are the only ones who have returned. Williams, the father of four, says it’s odd sometimes being all alone in the lower 9th ward.


Because it’s the home of Fats Domino. The lower 9th ward’s narrow streets and family homes used to host barbeques, parties and concerts.
Now they host piles of rubble, broken glass and downed power lines.

It’s been 19 months since Katrina came. And I’m no New Orleans expert.
But it doesn’t take a specialist to see something is wrong here.

New Orleans' leadership unveiled a plan on Thursday to rebuild the 9th and other areas. On paper it looks good. I hope it is.

I invite you to forward the message to all who you think may view over 150 more pictures from only about 4-5 blocks of the Lower 9th ward on

Please go to

Password: neworleans

Best to you all,