Cast of Characters: Jimmy Fitzmorris at 90
A life’s campaign continues
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
Jimmy Fitzmorris stands, calmly staring out the big window of the conference room of his office on the 17th floor of the FB&T Tower on Poydras Street. He was polished and ramrod-straight, as always, in a conservative blue pinstripe suit and dark tie.
For all anybody knew, the two-time lieutenant governor, long-time city councilman and one-time mayoral runner-up could have been back on the campaign trail.
This quiet nanosecond of solitude could have been the calm before the storm. Back then it would be a mere breather before a madding dash from this meeting to that luncheon, shaking a thousand hands and leaning forward, straining against the cacophony of campaign chatter, to hear this complaint and that compliment.
Back then nobody called him “Mr. Fitzmorris” or even “Jimmy.” If you said simply “Fitz” anywhere in the state of Louisiana, everybody knew about whom you were speaking. It seems everybody you saw back in the heady days of those campaigns – when Fitzmorris came within a whisker of being elected mayor, then governor, only to lose out to others – was wearing a simple little gold label pin that read, “Fitz.” That said it all.
But at 10:30 this morning, Jimmy Fitzmorris was thinking of his longtime friend and confidant, Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, who had passed away a mere seven hours before this moment.
Carol Daigle, an associate of Fitzmorris’ for the past 53 years, passes through the room with a sheaf of papers and no doubt is tempted to draw the conclusion that her boss is nodding goodbye to Hannan as the late archbishop was travelling upward past the window toward his heavenly reward. That image is obvious.
Daigle is carrying a message “from an investor” and a call from “an old friend from the Irish Channel.” But Daigle knows this is one of those epiphany moments in the life of Jimmy E. Fitzmorris Jr., and everything else can wait.
If that moment could be a reminder of the mortality of us all, you’d never know it by the image of this man who was “looking forward” to his 90th birthday on Nov. 15. His gait was strong and his voice still bullhorn powerful, commanding attention like the candidate of old. Everything else about him spoke of a man 30 years younger.
When he finally sits at the end of the conference table surrounded by four walls that are covered from floor to ceiling in plaques and photos, Fitzmorris takes a deep breath.
“I will miss him terribly,” he says. “It’ll be a long, long time before another person like the archbishop will come along. I remember that he and I were involved in so many things together. That’s one thing I’m really thankful for … for him and friends like him and that I’ve still got a good memory and can recall them … even looking at my 90th year I have a good memory.”
As he did when he was an altar boy at St. Matthias Church on General Pershing and South Broad streets, Fitzmorris attends Mass daily. He arrives at his office at 8:15 a.m. and puts in a full day as president and CEO of Fitzmorris and Associates, Inc., involved in corporate and government consultancy and in real estate investments. It is a non-stop existence until 5 p.m., and then it’s on to “other business,” like that pertaining to Mount Carmel Academy, attended by his two granddaughters and where Fitzmorris has been on the board of directors for the past 64 years. Fitzmorris is also a consultant to the Kansas City Southern Railroad, for which he went to work as a messenger boy in 1940 at 18 and rose to vice president.
“It’s always been that way with me,” Fitzmorris says. “I stay busy. I stay busy looking to help others. That’s the bottom line. That’s what has motivated me all my life. That’s what keeps me young. You can’t take. You’ve got to give. The rewards will take care of themselves.”
He continues, “There was a period when I was in Baton Rouge that I had four major jobs. I was lieutenant governor. I was president of the senate, president of the board of pardons and chairman of the board of commerce and industry. My total salary was $20,000 a year. But it wasn’t about money. It was all about helping people,” Fitzmorris says. “You make that your motivation and you can’t go wrong. You do it and you do it without any fanfare. Your reward will come.
(Fitzmorris eyes look upward and he smiles.) Just recently I stopped off at a Burger King for a cup of coffee. I saw this elderly man (he broke into a grin at the irony of an 89-year-old man calling anybody ‘elderly’) with a cup of coffee. That was all he had. I walked over and slipped a $20 bill under his napkin and before he could say anything, I said, ‘This is from a guardian angel!’ The old man thanked me. But it was all about helping somebody who needed help.”
Fitzmorris agrees that while he’s in remarkable physical and mental shape for a man pushing 90 (born Nov. 15, 1921), he isn’t Superman. He lets on as to how in 2003 doctors removed a melanoma from his head and it took 59 stitches to put his skull back together.
“But I’ve been in remission ever since,” he says. “When that happened, I know it was God telling me, ‘Jimmy, I’ve got other things I want you to do. Your work here on earth is not over.’ I took that as a message that I have got to help people.” He continues, “That’s why I’m here to begin with. That’s why we’re all here.
People ask me if I’m bitter about losing the mayor’s race to Moon (Landrieu) and the governor’s race by 2,000 votes. There’s no time to be bitter. Moon Landrieu today is one of my dearest friends. Besides, I lost those elections and look at the people I was able to help as lieutenant governor and other jobs I’ve had. People who hold grudges are people who are killing themselves. I don’t have time for that. There’s too much still to do. Too many people out there who need help.”
A visitor to the office is staring at a glittering gem in Fitzmorris’ left earlobe. The visitor then shifts in his chair and likewise spies another diamond-like glint in Fitzmorris’ right ear.
“Governor,” the visitor asks, “I notice you’ve got diamond studs in your ear lobes. You’re not going yuppie on us, are you?”
Fitzmorris breaks into uproarious laughter. He reaches up and removes the diamonds, saying, “Nooooooo, these are hearing aids. I was at Mass one day and I couldn’t hear the priest. I leaned forward and asked a lady if the priest was talking. ‘We’re in the middle of Mass,’ the woman said. ‘Certainly he’s talking.’
That’s when I knew it was time to have my hearing checked. I guess you could say these were my concessions to being 90.”
Wendy Swanson, Fitzmorris’ executive assistant, walks in and tells Fitzmorris there’s somebody waiting in his office to see him and he has several papers to sign.
Fitzmorris rises from his chair and begins to follow Swanson into his office, but not before stopping by that big window on the 17th floor and staring out and up at the clouds briefly with a knowing smile.