Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards places a state flag onto the casket during a Celebration of Life Interfaith Service for former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Thursday was the first of three days of public events to honor Blanco, the state's first female governor who died after a years long struggle with cancer.(AP Photo/Michael Democker, Pool)

Memorials begin for former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco

August 22, 2019 - 12:47 pm

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's first and only female governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, will return to the state's ornate Capitol building for her last time Thursday, with her casket carried in to the sound of a 21-gun salute honoring her service.

Mourners are expected to pack the building to pay their last respects to the Democrat who led Louisiana during the massive blows of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and who died Sunday after a yearslong struggle with cancer. She was 76.

Public visitation at the Louisiana Capitol follows a morning interfaith service held in a downtown Baton Rouge cathedral to memorialize Blanco, the start of three days of events for the former governor. The service was filled with former and current Louisiana officials, including Blanco's close friend, Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"Kathleen's faith, life experiences and genuine concern for others allowed her to connect on a deeply personal level with nearly every person she met," Edwards said.

He described Blanco as a woman who understood the beauty and hardships of life.

"She led Louisiana through some of its darkest days. And as a believer in divine providence, she would tell you she knew she was put in that position for a reason. And I believe that," said Edwards, whose voice cracked as he spoke of his mentor.

Blanco served one term as governor, from 2004-08. But she was a fixture in Louisiana politics for decades, winning elections to the state House, the state utility regulatory agency and the lieutenant governor's seat before reaching the top job. She died from a rare eye cancer that she battled successfully in 2011 but that later returned and spread to her liver.

"A woman of many firsts, Kathleen launched many leaders into public service and nurtured new and aspiring leaders until the end — with sound advice, a listening ear and lots of encouragement," said Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed, who worked as Blanco's deputy chief of staff.

The morning service included prayers and readings across many faiths, hymns and poetry. Blanco's grandchildren served as pallbearers, bringing the closed silver casket bearing the former governor to the front of the cathedral, where Edwards helped to drape it in a Louisiana state flag.

Later Thursday, Blanco's casket will be brought into the Capitol, where her one-time staff members and Cabinet secretaries will line the front steps as her former state police bodyguards carry the casket into the building amid a military salute.

Blanco's body will lie in Memorial Hall for public visitation Thursday afternoon, with the former governor's husband, 99-year-old mother and five living children among those who will greet the public.

Those waiting in line to offer condolences will wind through displays of campaign memorabilia, framed newspaper articles, family photos and religious artifacts that Blanco, a devout Catholic, treasured.

The red suit Blanco wore at her inauguration is on display, along with her wedding photo. Nearby is a photo of her son Ben, who died in 1997 in an industrial accident at the age of 19, along with the candle from his funeral.

In a surprising political twist, the memorial display features a handwritten letter from former President George W. Bush, with whom Blanco repeatedly clashed after Katrina, as the Bush administration sought to blame Louisiana's governor for the slow rescue response.

Bush wrote the letter on Dec. 11, 2017, a day after Blanco publicly announced her incurable cancer diagnosis in a newspaper column written to Louisiana's residents.

"Dear Kathleen, I have just read your beautiful column to the citizens of Louisiana," Bush wrote. "Your words were profound and touching. Laura and I will join the thousands who will pray for your strength and comfort. May God bless you and your family."

Blanco will be buried Saturday in Lafayette, in the heart of the Cajun region where she was born and raised, after a Friday prayer service in the city and a Saturday funeral Mass.

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