If it’s good for New Orleans, I’m for it!” That’s the perfect slogan for the 1960s-era Mayor of New Orleans, Victor Hugo Schiro, a cheerful, positive-thinking, unabashed booster and promoter of his city. He wasn’t tall and commanding; in fact President Lyndon B. Johnson sometimes referred to him as “the little mayor.” Vic Schiro had no designs on the governor’s mansion or the White House or Congress. He served on the City Council and he served as mayor. He and his wife had no children, and they lived quietly and comfortably on the lakefront. He was, more than anything else, a good citizen and a nice person. People who knew him remember him with a smile.
Vic Schiro liked being mayor – you would see him walking downtown, waving at cab drivers who hailed him, tipping his hat to the ladies. He never saw a ribbon he didn’t want to cut. He believed in being there in person. You would find him welcoming conventioneers at their banquets, attending ceremonies and grand openings, even stopping at a New Orleans Recreation Department playground to watch a baseball inning.
Schiro was born in Chicago and his father was a banker. The Schiros originally hailed from a part of Sicily populated with ethnic Greeks and Albanians. After Chicago, the family lived in Honduras (where Schiro learned to speak Spanish) and in New Orleans. As a young man, Schiro had been a radio announcer in New Orleans and he could later recall announcing the death of Huey Long. He had a brief sojourn in Hollywood, tried out for the movies, made friends (including Bob Hope and Gary Cooper) and even tried uranium prospecting. He picked up some skill as a musician – as mayor he would occasionally sit in on drums.
Schiro served in the Coast Guard during World War II. He met the love of his life, Margaret Mary Gibbes “Sunny” Schiro, when he was introduced to Sunny and her mother at a drugstore on Canal Street. On their first date they shared a chocolate soda. He opened an insurance agency and began a successful business career.
As a civic-minded young activist, he joined the Young Men’s Business Club and led the fight for the New Orleans Home Rule Charter – he even organized a motorcade to go to Baton Rouge and demand it from Governor Earl Long. Soon he was thinking about a career in politics and within a short time he was elected to the City Council. By the 1960s he was Councilman-at-Large, presiding over the council when Mayor Delesseps “Chep” Morrison left office to become Ambassador to the Organization of American States.
At the time he left office, Morrison was in his fourth term as Mayor. Morrison had towered over city politics but his ambition to be governor had kept the city at odds with Baton Rouge and his ambivalence over desegregation had perhaps contributed to the debacle that occurred when New Orleans public schools were first integrated and screaming protesters made national headlines. Schiro took office at a time when the Civil Rights movement was in its most active phase and turmoil and riots swept cities across the country.
During the 1960s, New Orleans had no riots – and some credit for that goes to Schiro, says Jack Maguire, who was his special assistant and then the city public relations director. At the opening of school the year following the protests, Schiro had the police set up barricades far from the schools and kept the crowds at bay. He ordered the police to control protesters. Schiro quietly had the Delgado Trade School integrated. The “Whites Only” signs came down from City Hall water fountains and restrooms. When there were protests, Schiro was always willing to talk to both sides and, while he was not the activist that some might have wished him to be, he was more conciliatory than others might have been.
Schiro was like President Harry Truman – he followed a long-time leader (Morrison. just as Truman had followed Franklin D. Roosevelt) and was followed in turn by a popular replacement (Moon Landrieu for Truman’s Dwight Eisenhower.) Like Truman, Schiro was a simple man of the people – polite, business-like and unassuming. And, like Truman, Schiro has been underestimated.
“Really when you look at it he had as many, if not more, urban problems to deal with than most of the mayors have had. He had the full throes of the civil rights movement and [Hurricane] Betsy,” notes Dr. Wilbur Meneray, assistant dean for Special Collections at Tulane University, who oversees the Victor and Margaret Mary Gibbes Schiro collection. (An online exhibit is located at www.specialcollections.tulane.edu/Schiro/Schiro.html.)
Schiro’s impromptu comments to the press following hurricanes Betsy (some version of “don’t listen to rumors unless they come from me”) and Camille (“headquarters is where I am”) are sometimes all that’s remembered but Schiro did much more.
Jack Maguire says that Schiro immediately called then-Senator Russell Long on the one working City Hall phone and told him President Lyndon Johnson had to come to the city. Johnson came, first seeing the devastated city from a plane. According to Maguire, “To the horror of the Secret Service, we took President Johnson to the top of the Judge Seever bridge [where] he could see the flood. That’s when he told Vic ‘anything in the world you want, you’ve got.’” The Federal Office of Emergency Preparedness set up shop in City Hall to help coordinate cleanup and relief.
Schiro also worked hard for federal relief legislation – the “Betsy Bill.” Historian Dr. Edward F. Haas, who’s writing a biography of Schiro, says the bill included provisions for loans and grants to those with hurricane losses and, for the first time, called for study of possible federal flood insurance.
It was Schiro who first came up with a plan for a domed stadium, presenting it during a campaign press conference after being hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. Schiro appointed Dave Dixon to chair the committee planning the stadium. The two went to Baton Rouge, where Governor John McKeithen agreed that the state would take over the project. McKeithen and Dixon get credit for the dome but Schiro deserves notice, too.
Schiro was mayor when the widening of Poydras Street began and he started the push for riverfront development. When he first became mayor, New Orleans policemen were forced to buy their own ammunition; he saw that rule changed. Schiro believed in being accessible to the public – he regularly held open houses and saw everyone who came to his office. He even read his own mail.
Moon Landrieu, who served as mayor after Schiro and differed with him often, nevertheless wrote a letter to The Times-Picayune after Schiro’s death, when he felt the newspaper had not treated Schiro as he deserved. “He was generous, kind and thoughtful. He bore no grudges. During his tenure as mayor, the budget was balanced and city services were delivered better than under most administrations.”
On top of his accomplishments, Vic Schiro always had a smile and a tip of his hat for everyone he met. That’s a good thing to remember about anyone, mayor or not.