She was a Southern lady who embodied grace and good manners, seedbeds of any meticulously tilled life of tranquility and delight.
Laura Deavers probably endured more than her share of tempest and tumult as editor of The Catholic Commentator in the Diocese of Baton Rouge for 30 years – ask any editor of a Catholic newspaper, and he or she will tell you typos normally occur on page 1 in 72-point type and always under the bishop’s smiling face – but the miracle of her life was how she tamed the chaos, the letters to the editor scribbled in crayon, with an all-powerful, conspiratorial smile and an inherent, very Catholic understanding of the human condition.
Do the best you can.
Forgive – and ask forgiveness.
Turn the page.
The world has not come to an end (that we know of), but, if so, we would have a Catholic best-seller whose last chapter we’ve already read, the ultimate spoiler alert.
When the sobering news came last week that Laura had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 69 – just four years after she had retired in 2013 – two things immediately came to mind beyond the obvious, that cancer is empirical evidence of the mystery of suffering.
No. 1: She’s free. No. 2: There have not been many better Catholics I have met than Laura Deavers.
We had been colleagues for many years – Laura started at The Commentator in 1984 and I joined the Clarion Herald in 1993 – but it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that our missions, geographically and emotionally, intersected.
Our partnership would not have happened without a sequence of events that, upon reflection, set up directly in Laura’s wheelhouse. In 1984, there was some dissension in the Baton Rouge Diocese, in part due to the newspaper’s content. Laura, who had graduated from LSU with a journalism degree and worked several years on trade publications in Atlanta, New York and Dallas, found herself back in Baton Rouge when she picked up The Morning Advocate and read a story that the entire staff of The Commentator had been dismissed.
Laura, whose daughter was in pre-school, called the diocese before the editor’s job even had been advertised and asked to be considered. When she got the job, she came in with no staff except for a part-time sportswriter, Joe Planas. The first few months were rocky, especially fielding telephone calls from disaffected readers.
“For months, people would tell me to take their name off the mailing list,” she recalled. “One person even said if he wanted a copy, he would get the paper out of the garbage can at the post office.”
Rather than recoil, Laura offered a classically measured and genteel reply: “If you don’t see a difference in a year, you can stop the paper then.”
The paper’s circulation grew from 47,000 mailed copies to more than 60,000 in 2012, when the distribution system was changed to bulk delivery to parishes to be picked up at weekend Masses.
In 2005, when tempest and tumult came to south Louisiana, the staff of the Clarion Herald reconvened in a basement storage area of the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge, just a few feet away from Laura’s offices. We jerry-rigged 10 computers around a pair of 6-foot folding tables and wrote about the end times.
Laura opened her home to our family. I’ve never had a better night’s sleep on an air mattress, falling asleep before the first whoosh.
Our two youngest children attended platooned classes – at St. Joseph’s Academy in the morning and at Catholic High in the evening. By then, we were living with new friends in Gonzales. Our daughter’s classes started at 6:45 a.m., but the nearby Catholic Life Center, with a life-restoring daybed tucked underneath a flight of stairs, remained locked until 9.
The diocese had a master key but wasn’t exactly offering it up, meaning I slept for two hours in my car and waited for the center’s doors to open. Laura found out. That afternoon, she slipped the key into my hand and told me not to tell anyone. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Another seed of tranquility.
When Hurricane Rita slammed southwest Louisiana a few weeks later, Laura threw open her home once again to Morris LeBleu, the editor of the Southwest Catholic in Lake Charles, and his wife Sallye. Morris would work out of the Catholic Life Center with Laura, and they would return each evening to Sallye’s home-cooked meal.
The most amazing example of a life lived for others happened on Aug. 24. Hurricane Harvey was hammering Houston, refusing to leave, and also sending torrents into Lake Charles. Morris looked at his phone. It was a text from Laura, who because of the progression of her cancer was having difficulty eating.
“Do you need a home to evacuate to?” she asked. “You know you have a place in Baton Rouge.”
Morris was stunned. “Even with her medical situation, her willingness to provide a helping hand, a warm hug, a place to stay, shows the truly genuine Christian she was,” Morris said. “I will always love her!”
Less than three weeks later, on Sept. 13, she was gone.
Morris, Louis Aguirre (former editor of the Bayou Catholic in Houma-Thibodaux) and I had our last face-to-face visit with Laura on June 1 at T.J. Ribs in Baton Rouge, just a few blocks from the Catholic Life Center. She was wearing a turban. She couldn’t stop smiling.
“I figure I’ve written enough stories about what our faith teaches us,” she said as we hugged and said farewell. “Now, I’m the one who has to believe.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.