Lolis Edward Elie died Tuesday. I saw it come across my newsfeed and was briefly taken aback – obviously I had a sense of his importance, his prominence, but it still took me a few moments to wrap my brain around the fact that a person I’ve known as long as I’ve been alive was being memorialized in the paper.
I’ve known Lolis for so long that I’ve truly never not known him. Some of my earliest memories are of being in his home when I was about 3 – he had statues of African warriors that terrified me and a spiral staircase that thrilled me, and he wore some kind of cologne that sort of smelled like Rice Krispies. And though I would later appreciate his genius, when I was younger, I mostly knew him as the man who would have interminable conversations with my dad over brunch at Le Richelieu while I whined to go to the French Market.
In my self-centered teenage mind, he was much more important for being the man who slipped me a $100 bill at my Sweet 16 and again at my high school graduation than for being the “lawyer who helped desegregate New Orleans.”
And even as I grew older, he was still, in my mind, more my dad’s best friend than any kind of hero. Heroes weren’t as soft-spoken as Lolis was; they didn’t have his quiet but wicked sense of humor; they didn’t have his indescribably charming giggle-laugh.
I loved him, I respected him, but I didn’t realize how special he was to anyone besides our family.
One of my favorite New Orleans stories: I grew up going by Katy (my middle name is Kathryn); Lolis’ son, Lolis Eric Elie, grew up going by Eric. When I won a writing award in high school, Eric, by then a well-known columnist for the Times-Picayune who used his full name as his byline, was the one who presented it to me.
“Congratulations, Katy,” he said as he handed me the plaque.
“Thanks, Eric,” I said.
The audience – who had been introduced to us as Lolis and Eve – must have thought we’d messed up each other’s names, but in truth, we’d known each other too long to even think of each other by anything else but the names our families called us.
Lolis was never really preachy with me, but he did teach me one very clear lesson that I never forgot: He worked in his younger years at the Audubon Golf Club, where he heard the white men around him say disgustingly racist things. Later, when he was having serious discussions with major political players, he was surprised to find himself sitting across the table from men who had said things in his presence when he was basically invisible to them. From the time I was Georgia's age, he impressed upon me that you need to be a good person in private and in public or you're not actually a good person at all.
He was definitely a good person, in public and in private. And when I’d come home from college, I never felt more grown-up and sophisticated and smart than when I was allowed to drink a glass of wine with my dad and Lolis and just listen to them talk. I was almost always too intimidated to contribute my own thoughts to their conversation – and the two of them almost had their own twin language anyway – but just listening to them talk, two brilliant men who’d been friends for half a century and endured numerous losses and joys and triumphs and tragedies together, was a privilege and gave me more than a twinge of regret for all the conversations I’d whined through (“Can we go yet???”) as a child.
His funeral is this weekend. My heart aches for his family – and for my own. My father is burying his best friend. And New Orleans? I can now say with complete certainty that New Orleans has lost a hero.