As every year comes to a close, The Independent Weekly’s editorial staff turns its attention to its Person of the Year. What person, or group of people, will we focus on and for what reasons? What have they done to warrant the attention? What will their stories tell us about not only who they are, but who we are as a community? The subject always makes for several lively discussions before we make a final decision.
At first, I was reluctant to even bring up the Comeaux Fund Campaign Committee (aka The Comeauxtians), not because I didn’t believe its story didn’t merit coverage, but because I’m involved with the group. Over the years I’ve been impressed not only with its ultimate goal, but also how it’s operated, taking small steps (and big ones when it could) to realize its vision. Despite the expanding and contracting size of the group, the interest and determination of the core dozen or so members has never waned. And they’ve done it all without complaint and always with enthusiasm and good humor, without forming a 501c3 or meeting at a set time every month, but by simply committing to every task at hand and showing up — getting the work done.
It all began in 1997 as a way to honor a beloved and fallen friend. But the seed of that idea has sprouted into the $1 million Dr. Tommy Comeaux Eminent Scholar Chair in Traditional Music at UL Lafayette, the College of the Arts’ first-ever endowed chair. A decade ago, the Comeauxtians, who hadn’t yet raised a dime, had a few ideas on how they might drum up $1 million. And after 40 events, with untold contributions and in-kind donations from individuals, physicians, companies and music lovers throughout Acadiana and beyond, they accomplished what they set out to do.
Some of the campaign members were close friends with Comeaux, and others never met him. And as we all know from our own experiences, time has a way of diminishing the memory of the loved ones we lose along the way. Those involved with his project, however, have not only preserved Comeaux’s memory, but they’ve bolstered and strengthened his legacy by creating a sound and living tribute that will focus on the music he loved while giving back to the community he loved. That was Tommy Comeaux.
That’s why we’ve made the Comeaux Fund Campaign Committee our Persons of the Year for 2008.
This is their story — and ours as well.
On a Saturday morning, Nov. 8, 1997, Tommy Comeaux was biking alone in Broussard. It was a good day for a ride — not too humid, not too cold. Also a marathon runner, cycling was one of Tommy’s many interests.
The night before he played music with Native Sons at the Artists Alliance in downtown Lafayette. At night, he was a musician, an infection he acquired as a kid when he picked up the guitar. As an adult, he was best known for his work with the Grammy Award-winning Cajun band BeauSoleil, but he also played with the Basin Brothers, Coteau and the Clickin’ Chickens, as well as serving on the Louisiana Music Commission.
Tommy’s day gig was as the head of pathology at our Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center. Talk with any musician who knew him, and you’ll hear the story of how Tommy not only asked about his health but often offered his medical expertise or services, at no charge.
“He was the most compassionate and caring person I’ve ever known,” says Sonny Landreth. The two met in high school and shared a love for guitar that led to a lifelong friendship. “He just had a seemingly inexhaustible energy and was always helping others. His heart was in music, but he was much too practical and gifted in the medical world not to do that. He had this balance of both that I’ll never know how he did it. No matter how busy he was — just thinking about his schedule is mind-boggling — he always made you feel like there was always time for you. He always stressed if you needed anything he was always there for you, and that included me, my friends, and my family.”
Tommy also had a stunning collection of more than 200 vintage guitars, not a group of oddities but historically significant instruments. When guitarist Mark Knopfler was in town recording an album, Tommy showed up at the studio one day with guitars he knew Knopfler would be interested in playing. “If there was something he knew about that you needed or wanted,” Landreth says, “it would just magically show up at your front door.”
Tommy was still in college when Gary Newman first met him. Newman had just formed Coteau, the electrified Cajun outfit that haunted joints like Jay’s Cockpit and Lounge in Cankton and Boo Boo’s on the Breaux Bridge Highway, opening up for acts like Clifton Chenier and Asleep at the Wheel. Newman goes so far as to describe Tommy as “the perfect human being — always positive, giving, willing to help anyone, energetic, very intelligent and loved music.” The two played in bands together throughout the years. In 1997, Coteau reunited for a gig at Wolf Trap in Virginia, where Tommy insisted Newman play his vintage 1964 Fender Jazz bass. Newman did so reluctantly, and when he tried to return it, Tommy told him to hold onto it for awhile. “He was just that kind of guy,” Newman says.
There’s another comment Tommy made to Newman he will never forget. It was just after the Coteau gig in ’97, after the two had visited the Smithsonian where some of Tommy’s guitars were on display. “On the train back to the hotel, we were just talking about life and everything,” Newman recalls. “It was the weirdest thing. He loved Coteau; that was his band. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, you know, I can die now and be a happy man.’ A week later Tommy died.”
On that Saturday morning in Broussard, while Tommy Comeaux was bicycling, an oncoming vehicle approached him. As it did, the driver suffered a seizure, crossed the center line of the road and struck Tommy, killing him instantly. He was 45 years old.
“People from all over the country came down to his funeral,” says Tommy’s father, Dr. Walter Comeaux. “We were amazed. You never know your offspring until they’ve gone by the wayside. Hopefully, no one ever has to see their offspring go by the wayside. We should go first, you know. But we were able to witness who he really was and what he meant to the community.”
In the wake of his death, there was never any doubt as to what Tommy meant to his friends. They met on several occasions to grieve and to decide what they could do to honor him. Landreth says those early get-togethers at the old location of the Acadiana Arts Council were fueled by “a tribal instinct.” The group decided to pay tribute to Tommy the way he would have — with music. But no one remembers exactly who came up with idea of the Medicine Show, a memorial concert at Grant Street Dancehall, or even when the idea was first uttered.
“We’ve never had minutes to a meeting,” says Todd Mouton, director of the Louisiana Crossroads music series and an instrumental organizer of the group’s events throughout the years. “We’ve never had a vote. We don’t have officers, no board of directors. We don’t have bylaws. We just get together, whoever can get together, to come up with ideas and figure out how to do them. Not to be idealistic about it, but it’s the whole from each according to their ability and to each according to their need. If we could do it, we did it.”
Committee members throughout the years have included Mouton, Landreth and Newman, as well as Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Chairman Don Bertrand, local chef Pat Mould, graphic designer Megan Barra, Dr. Frank Bacqué, Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Robbie Bush (of Associated Travel Group), BeauSoleil frontman Michael Doucet, architect Allen Bacqué, former Acadiana Arts Council Director Buddy Palmer, community arts organizer Gwyn Hutslar, photographer Kent Hutslar, and Dr. Steve Abshire.
The first Medicine Show was held the day after Christmas in 1997 on a cold and wet Friday night. A crowd of 700 showed up, stood in line at the door and paid $15 each to hear music performed by Landreth, BeauSoleil, Coteau, the Basin Brothers, The Clickin’ Chickens and Native Sons. And under the direction of Karl Fontenot, the chief engineer for KRVS 88.7 FM, UL Lafayette’s public radio station, the show was broadcast and recorded that night.
With a successful benefit on its hands, the group looked to where to use the funds it had raised. “That led to the idea of the endowed chair in the music school at UL, which had never been done before,” says Landreth. If the group could raise $600,000, the state of Louisiana would match those funds with $400,000 through the Board of Regents Support Fund for a $1 million endowment. The principal from the endowment remains in a perpetual fund that grows while the earned income is used for scholarships, professorships and faculty development.
Dr. Walter Comeaux laughs when he thinks back upon first hearing about the idea for the endowed chair. “I thought it would never occur,” he says. “I think they were kind of skeptical themselves as to the final outcome of it. But of course as they went along and began to produce these professorships, it became obvious that sooner or later it would become a reality.”
Since their inception, the Comeauxtians have produced 11 Medicine Shows at Grant Street Dancehall every Christmas. The shows have resulted in three CDs worth of music that have also benefited the fund, along with poster and T-shirts sales. In all, the group has produced and hosted some 40 fund-raising events since 1997. Within the last few years, a group of Landreth’s fans, Sonny’s Krewe, has traveled to his shows across the country at their own expense, sold merchandise and contributed some $30,000 to the effort.
“When any of us had time we just did what we could,” Mouton says. “A lot of people sacrificed parts of their holidays and a few hours and minutes here and there. But it’s amazing what you can squeeze into the cracks of your life, and it’s amazing how that can make your life so much better.”
Along the way, the committee also birthed a Cajun jam band powerhouse. The Traiteurs was composed of committee members Landreth, Newman, and Mould, along with Al Berard, Errol Verret, Danny Kimball, Tony Latiolais, and Valerie Breazeale. Much like the committee itself, the band was loosely knit but highly focused. The Traiteurs never rehearsed, never had a set list, and never even considered signing a record deal. Its only “tour” was in 2000 when it performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, Festival International and Festivals Acadiens. In all, the group performed on 30 occasions (dubbing the appearances as the “Good For What Ails You Tour”), and any fees paid to the band were donated to the Comeaux fund. “Along with the creation of the Medicine Show,” Landreth says, “The Traiteurs has been one of the best ongoing musical experiences I’ve ever had.” The group recently disbanded, as quietly as it came together.
Last Christmas, nearly a decade to the day of the first Medicine Show, the Comeauxtians hit their goal. Mouton made the announcement from Grant Street’s stage at Medicine Show 11, with then UL President Ray Authement, Dr. Walter Comeaux, and Comeaux Committee members on hand.
On Oct. 28, at the UL Foundation’s annual Distinguished Donor reception, the Comeauxtians were honored for their work in creating the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Eminent Scholar Chair in Traditional Music. Landreth and Michael Doucet performed “Chez Seychelles,” the same song they played at Tommy’s funeral. For each endowment that’s established, the university gives the donor an actual chair. The Comeauxtians, however, managed to get the university’s first rocking chair.
David Comeaux, the director of planned giving for UL, says that in his 21 years in higher education development, he’s never encountered a group like the Comeauxtians. “I have not seen a group work as tirelessly as this one did to honor the memory of a friend,” he says. “He must have been a very special and unique person because the manner in which this memorial fund was created is certainly special and unique. I can only imagine how good his family must feel knowing that a group of friends stayed the course over a 10-year period to help honor the memory of their loved one.”
Now that the endowment has been made in the music department, it’s up to the university to determine its best use. “There’s so much good to come out of this,” Landreth says. “It’s really in keeping with Tommy’s spirit, how he was always helping people and all the things he really loved about music.”
Although the $1 million goal for the endowed chair has been met, the matching of donations can continue. For every $60,000 raised, the state will still match it with $40,000 to create a $100,000 endowed professorship. And since the group has already created a well-oiled fund-raising machine, it’s decided that the show must go on. Medicine Show will continue to be held every Christmas to raise money for the endowment. This year, as with the first year, the doors to Grant Street will open on the night after Christmas for Medicine Show 12. “I’ll keep on doing it for the rest of my life,” Newman says. “Even though we’ve met our goal that doesn’t mean we have to stop. We can just keep on going in Tommy’s name — because he would be doing the same thing.”
“It seems to have a life of its own,” Landreth adds, “and I think that’s the way of things when you hit on something that really works. Maybe it’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been a journey about healing and value fulfilment that offsets that loss. Then the individuals involved, I can easily brag on the other members of the committee because they’ve all done an amazing job. It just shows the quality of the character of the people as individuals. I think that all of that, coming together, really becomes a sustaining force.”
“We all thought we had this special friendship with Tommy,” Mouton says. “And the more people we met, we found out that they had this special friendship with him and that maybe he did something really nice for them or that he was always kind to them. But then there are all of these people who haven’t met him and didn’t know him, but his story still resonates with them. He’s the kind of guy they don’t build monuments for but they probably should. So I think everyone’s been able to plug into that. It amazes me how when you make a copy of something it’s usually degraded in some way, but I think Tommy’s memory has made perfect copies, and his legacy is these ideas that his life represented and continues to represent.”
Medicine Show 12
Performances by The Rocking Shapes, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, and Sonny Landreth with special guest Lazy Lester
Grant Street Dancehall
Friday, Dec. 26
Show starts at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $15 and available at the Acadiana Center for the Arts (337) 233-7060
Hear Medicine Show 12 on KRVS 88.7 FM and at www.krvs.org.
The Comeaux Fund Campaign Committee
The makeup of the Comeauxtians has changed throughout the years. Here’s who has been involved.
Sharon Arms Doucet
R. Reese Fuller
Shamus T. Fuller