The day after Christmas, Cathy and I lost two good friends, and Southwest Louisiana lost great citizens, when Vic Stelly and his wife, Terry, passed away from COVID-19 within hours of each other.
We first met Vic and Terry 35 years ago. Cathy and I had just gotten married, and we had bought a vacant, repossessed house directly across the street from the Stellys in Park Manor. It was not long before Vic and Terry showed up at our door to welcome us to the neighborhood.
We were new to Moss Bluff, and I did not know at the time that Vic was like “Mr. Moss Bluff.” A former assistant football coach at McNeese, he had sold insurance to just about everyone in “the Bluff’ through his State Farm agency. And he was on the School Board at a time when the schools in Moss Bluff were facing many challenges.
Vic and Terry were the ultimate couple: college sweethearts, you seldom saw one without the other being nearby, and everyone knew them and liked them. They introduced us to their friends, invited us to their parties and asked us to join the Mardi Gras Krewe (the Krewe du Grand Bois) they had just helped form. Soon we were “Moss Bluffians.”
When Cathy and I bought that big, rundown house it was our intention to fix it up and flip it. But it didn’t quite work out that way. We had two children living with us from my previous marriage. Then Cathy started having babies. They came one after another, four in five years.
Terry came over one day to ask if Cathy knew what was causing all these babies. I told her I did: every time I put a For Sale sign in the yard, she tells me she’s pregnant again. So I’m going to stop trying to sell the house.
It’s a big house with six bedrooms. And we filled them all up. Our younger kids lined up with Vic and Terry’s grandkids. Their granddaughter Hannah was close in age to our two daughters and took dance lessons from Cathy; she was on the studio’s dance team and Terry often accompanied her to out-of-town competitions. Their grandson, Hayden, was born within weeks of our youngest son, Billy, so the two of them were literally playing together when they were in both in diapers and were inseparable friends all the way through middle school and high school, making clever videos and later performing in local clubs with their rap group. They are now nearly 30 and still best friends.
If Vic and I were both working in our yards on a Saturday afternoon, we often wound up talking together over our rakes, usually about politics. I had worked for Ronald Reagan’s re-election committee writing op-ed pieces, and Vic was a big fan of The Gipper. One day Vic told me he was thinking of running for state representative, but there was a problem. He was a Republican, and at the time there were not many of those in Calcasieu Parish. But Vic tossed his hat in the ring anyway and became the first Republican elected to the state Legislature from Calcasieu Parish in a long, long time. (Someone told me he was the first ever, but I can’t verify that.)
That was back in 1988 when the oil industry had collapsed, and Louisiana was facing a major fiscal crisis. Vic went off to Baton Rouge with two other new representatives: Randy Roach and Dennis Stine. They were “the young Turks” in the Legislature, anxious to make fundamental changes to the state’s notoriously corrupt political system.
I was a big proponent of structural tax reform and considered it essential to political reform, often explaining to people that the tax code defines the nature of the political game the way rules define different sports games: one set of rules says you’re playing football, another set says you’re playing baseball another says you’re playing basketball. As an economist, when I looked at Louisiana’s tax structure, I saw a set of rules that concentrated fiscal power in Baton Rouge with little accountability or fiscal responsibility, creating an open field for special interests and corruption. But in the end, the effort for comprehensive tax reform failed.
There were a lot of other things going on at the time besides fiscal reform. David Duke had been elected to the state Legislature from Metairie as a Republican and he quickly tried to parlay that win into runs for the governorship and the U.S. Senate. Voters were angry and frustrated, and Duke’s message found some receptive ears.
At the time I had a dog named Duke. (I did not name him that; it was his name when I got him.) He was a big brown male boxer that had not been fixed. Back in the days before leash laws in Moss Bluff, he roamed the neighborhood trying to pick up “chick”-dogs. So, when it started to get dark, I went to the end of my driveway, whistled, and hollered, “Duke, Duke” at the top of my lungs. Then it occurred to me one night that I was directly facing Vic and Terry’s bedroom, and Vic was in the state Legislature. The next day I went over and explained to Vic that I was not making a political statement; I was just trying to get my dog to come home.
Vic went on to serve 16 years in the state Legislature. In 2006, he was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, which described him as an “intelligent, reasonable and accessible legislator who was active in efforts to bring major structural changes to much of the state government.”
In true Reagan fashion, Vic believed in working across the aisle. As Reagan quipped: “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy” and “you can get a lot accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit.” But Vic became disillusioned with the cronyism and partisan politics in the state Republican Party, and in 2004 he switched his affiliation to independent.
After leaving the Legislature he was appointed to the Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education spending and management. But he resigned from the board in 2012, citing frustration with cuts to state funding for public colleges that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration had made.
About 15 years ago, Vic and Terry sold their house in Park Manor and built a new one across Highway 378. We could see their house from our backyard; it was directly opposite ours. But there was now a busy highway between us. It was not like the old days. The kids and grandkids were now grown; Vic was retired, and while he and Terry were able to make several trips to Europe in the past few years, Vic’s health was failing.
Vic and Terry were the first King and Queen of the Krewe du Grand Bois, and this year, Cathy and I were what is likely to be the last King and Queen of the krewe because it is doubtful it will survive the pandemic restrictions. For us, the passing of Vic and Terry marks the end of an era in our lives. They will be deeply missed by us and our family, as well as many other people in Southwest Louisiana. God bless you, Vic, you were a man of deep principles.