Mother, politician, real-estate broker, community activist – when you ask Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, known more informally as Jackie Clarkson, about what role has been the most important in her life, she unequivocally and without hesitance says, “being a mother.”
Like many New Orleanians, I best know Clarkson by her career in public service (and the signature red that she wears); she currently serves as City Councilperson-at-Large, a position to which she was reelected this year. She was previously a New Orleans City Council “District C” Councilmember, 1990-’94 and 2002-’06; and a District 102 Representative in the Louisiana House of Representatives, 1994-2002. Before she jumped into politics, she was a real-estate broker for 20 years.
Yet, when I entered her office in City Hall, I was drawn to the family photos, rather than the honors hanging on the wall; what particularly stuck out was a large family photo that included children, grandchildren and sons-in-law.
Clarkson, whose family has roots in New Orleans for generations, is the mother of five daughters and grandmother to 10, and when I look at the photo she proudly points out each family member and what each has accomplished. There are 10 university degrees among her daughters, and her grandchildren are either in college, medical school, law school or pursuing a master’s degree. One daughter, Patricia Clarkson, is an Oscar-nominated actress.
Clarkson had her first daughter in 1954 at age 18; four more were born in subsequent years. At that time, both she and her husband were students at Tulane University and lived in married student housing. She then became a military wife while her husband was in the Air Force, moving with the family about every nine months to bases in Mississippi, New York and Virginia. “It was the only time I didn’t live in New Orleans,” she says. Clarkson was briefly a substitute teacher, got into real estate then segued into politics in her mid-50s. She won her first election in 1990, and her current term expires in 2014 when she’ll be 78 years old. Clarkson says, “I love my job, dearly.”
Yet, despite her many accomplishments in public service, she’s most proud about being a mother. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, let’s focus on Clarkson not as a City Councilmember, but as a mother, grandmother, aunt and wife.
Age: 74 Born and raised: New Orleans Resides: Algiers Family: Husband, Arthur Alexander Clarkson Jr. (He goes by Buzz); five daughters (in order of oldest to youngest): Dr. Jacquelyn Rutgers Clarkson; Cynthia Ann Clarkson Alsfeld; Diane Brechtel Clarkson Hastings; Kevin Elizabeth Clarkson Sanders; Patricia Davies Clarkson; 10 grandchildren. Education: Graduated from Martin Behrman High School; attended Tulane University Favorite book: Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose Favorite movie: It used to be Citizen Kane, and I love old 1940s movies on Turner Classic Movies or PBS – films with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But I have to admit I now lean toward my daughter Patti’s movies. I love The Untouchables because it was her first movie, and Pieces of April, because she was nominated for the Oscar [Best Actress in a Supporting Role]. I think the movie is more profound than most people realize. Favorite TV show: I don’t really watch TV … but I watch a lot of news. Favorite food: Crawfish bisque or redfish courtboullion. Both like my mother used to make. Favorite restaurants: I am partial to all of the Brennan restaurants. Favorite music/musicians (and what CDs I would find in your car): I like classical music, especially opera; and on my car radio, NPR or classical. My late sister, Jeanne Brechtel Battistella, used to sing opera with Norman Treigle, and I’d go to rehearsal with her to listen. My favorite operas, depending on which one I’ve seen last, would be either La Traviata or Faust. Placido Domingo and the Three Tenors [Luciano Pavarotti, José Carrera and Placido Domingo]. You’d also find rock ‘n’ roll from 1940s, and Irma Thomas, Dr. Michael White, Allen Toussaint and Wanda Rouzan. I also like New Orleans jazz. I try to make every opera and Jazz Fest. Hobby: I don’t really have one. But I like to cook for family holidays and watch old movies on TV on the couch with my husband. I miss swimming – I swam every day until I came back to City Hall. When I retire, I’ll go back to swimming. Right now, I can’t get the hair wet! Favorite vacation spot: New York, N.Y. Especially for a movie premiere!
Tell me about growing up in New Orleans: My parents were Johnny Brechtel and Sophie Berengher. I am one of four: two girls, two boys. We lived in the middle of the Brechtel compound in Algiers with grandmothers, aunts and uncles all around us. It was wonderful growing up around my grandparents and cousins, but you couldn’t walk out the back door without anyone knowing it! We lived in the big house my grandfather built, and for all occasions everybody came to our house. My mother was a cook – she was phenomenal.
Like your mother, do you like to cook? I cook, but only on holidays. I don’t do dinner every night anymore, as I used to. I cook up for as many as 50 to 60 people for holidays. I still have the large Christmas – everybody comes to our house on Christmas Eve, including my brother, nieces and nephews, in-laws. It’s like what my mom and dad’s house once was.
Any signature dishes? Garlic roast beef with noodles bordelaise, fresh vegetables tossed with my special olive oil dressing, salad and praline parfait, with the praline sauce made from scratch. I used to do a redfish courtboullion – I would use redfish we had just caught.
How did you and your husband meet? I met my husband while we were students at Martin Behrman High School. We have been married for 56 years and he still puts up with me – despite my job. [Clarkson says with a smile.] He is now retired – he was the administrator of the Louisiana State University Medical School.
I have a wonderful husband who I totally enjoy when I get to see him, because I get to see him so little that I realize he’s so very special. What we enjoy the most together are the grandchildren. They are all 18 years and above, and their events and activities are a great joy to go to.
Speaking with you earlier, I see that higher education is important to you and your husband. My five daughters have 10 higher education degrees between them: attorney; psychologist who also teaches high school math and science; an environmental epidemiologist with a Ph.D.; financial businesswoman; and an actress, who received her master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama. Of my 10 grandchildren, seven are out of college, and one has a graduate degree, one with a master’s degree who’s teaching as a college professor, one finishing law school in May and another in medical school. As of this May, there will still be three in college.
Do your children and grandchildren live nearby? All of my children and grandchildren were born and raised in New Orleans. Two of my daughters live in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge, one in Dallas and another in New York.
Six of the 10 grandchildren still live in New Orleans.
What qualities as a mother do you bring to the job? Voice of reason.
What do you think you will do after your last term? I may retire – I won’t run again. I don’t know if I’ll go back into real estate, and I have some other ambitions. I would like to return to school and finish my degree. I studied math while I was at Tulane, and really like the finance – I really loved it when I did real estate. And to start swimming again, maybe competitively.
And I have other ideas for when I’m in my 80s.
Any advice for today’s mothers? Absolutely. If you mess up your children then nothing else you do really matters. I stole that quote from Jackie Kennedy. Her quote emulates what I feel. But my role model is my own mother – she taught me how to be a mother, and my mother-in-law was a big influence, too. I hope I have been as good an influence on my own daughters.
Of my whole resume, which includes private business, public service at various levels, I always tell everyone the best part of my resume is motherhood – I’ve had no job I’ve cherished more. There is nothing more important in life than what you do with your children. Had I not felt I had been a good mother, I wouldn’t have felt worthy to be a businesswoman or councilperson.
True confessions: I can’t live without Tab [soda]. I’m 74 years old and can go on 4 to 5 hours of sleep at night. On a wall in my house hangs a marlin that I caught in a women’s tournament in South Pass.