Phyllis Landrieu, a businesswoman and activist whose causes included health care, education and the rights of children — along with a healthy dose of politics — died Saturday at Touro Infirmary. She was 86.
The cause of death has not been determined, her daughter Judy Landrieu Klein said.
Landrieu was “a woman of steel,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement, describing Landrieu as “a passionate champion for our children and for early childhood education.”
The mother of 10 children, Landrieu was an unstinting advocate of early childhood education and children’s health. She also founded her own public-relations agency and was active in politics, serving as the first woman leader of the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee and a member of the Democratic National Committee. She was a friend of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“She was just an amazing bundle of joy and had a special force about her, but it was a joyful force,” former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a niece, said. “She approached everything with passion and vigor and energy.”
Landrieu became a passionate advocate for children’s well-being after the deaths of her sons Stephen and Scott, Klein said, explaining that her mother took on that cause as a way to work through her grief. Her work resulted in the creation of the Health and Education Alliance of Louisiana; she was its founding president.
Calling her work with that organization “an opportunity out of the darkness,” Landrieu wrote: “If I could relieve some child’s suffering, I could relieve some … of mine. Little by little, it worked. Every day, I keep moving in the direction of the children. There are so many children suffering, as I am, with pain and disappointment. In helping them, I am helping myself.”
“She was not exempt from hardships,” Mary Landrieu said, “but she would just put one foot in front of the other. She was captain of her own ship; she was an inspiration to many.”
She also was president of the Orleans Parish School Board.
Her work as an education advocate “is probably her legacy,” said Tony Gelderman, a neighbor and friend who has worked with the Landrieu family on many campaigns.
“She felt that it was what was going to help New Orleans become the city it could be, that education is the path to a better New Orleans,” he said.
Landrieu never gave up her commitment to her own education, said her niece Madeleine Landrieu, dean of Loyola University College of Law. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing communications at the University of New Orleans, she went back to UNO to get a master’s degree after rearing all 10 children.
“She was just so tenacious,” Madeleine Landrieu said. “She did not take no for an answer.”
But, friends and relatives said, there was still more to her. They remembered her as a woman with an infectious laugh, an enthusiastic member of the Landrieu clan who never missed a chance to be with her ample family. During Carnival parades, she happily opened up her St. Charles Avenue home for what amounted to a two-week open house.
“She was excited about everything,” said Verna Landrieu, whose husband, former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, was the brother of Phyllis Landrieu’s husband, Joseph C. Landrieu Jr.
“She loved being with people and helping other people,” Verna Landrieu said.
A native of Baltimore who as born on Feb. 27, 1934, Phyllis Ann Coldewy moved to New Orleans with her family in 1942 and graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican High School.
She married into a political family, “and she ran with it,” Gelderman said, explaining that she used the higher profile that came with name recognition to get more attention for her own causes.
“It was all to a good purpose,” he said.
Landrieu worked tirelessly in campaigns across the country and, on the state and national levels, in the workings of the Democratic Party.
“She was the best kind of person to be in politics,” Gelderman said. “She knew where everyone was politically. She could be disappointed by someone, but she never held a grudge.”
She founded Landrieu Public Relations, and she was a member of the New Orleans Aviation Board.
Landrieu also founded the Task Force on Child Sexual Abuse, and she served on city, state and national health-planning councils. Among the boards and commissions on which she sat were the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the United Negro College Fund, the New Orleans Navy League and the Crescent City Peace Alliance. Loyola awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2016.
“She was indefatigable, and she never flagged,” Gelderman said. “She never showed a feeling that something wasn’t going to work. She never looked sideways; she always looked forward.”
Her husband of 62 years, Joseph G. Landrieu Jr., died in 2016.
Survivors include five sons, Michael Landrieu of Lillian, Alabama; Gary Landrieu of Pass Christian, Mississippi; David Landrieu of Metairie; and Kenneth and Gregory Landrieu, both of New Orleans; three daughters, Renee Landrieu and Joanne Curren, both of New Orleans, and Judy Landrieu Klein of Mandeville; two sisters, Elaine Coldewy Boudreaux of Algiers and Joan Coldewy Gros of New Orleans; 18 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.
A Mass will be said Wednesday (Oct. 14) at noon at St. Francis Assisi Catholic Church, 631 State St. Visitation starts at 10 a.m.
Burial will be private.
Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.