Founding Clarion editor Comar created a winner
Emile M. Comar Jr., who in 1963 turned the fledgling Clarion Herald into one of country’s finest diocesan newspapers and who later became the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ lead lobbyist with the Louisiana Legislature, died July 21 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He was 89.
Comar, a native of Charleston, S.C., was covering the state Legislature for the States- Item, New Orleans’ afternoon newspaper, when Archbishop John Cody invited him to his office in 1962 and asked him to become editor of a new archdiocesan publication that would succeed the Catholic Action of the South.
Comar was 36 then, and he and his wife Madeline were sending five children to Catholic school on a modest newspaperman’s salary. As a political reporter and columnist for the States-Item, Comar was a practicing Catholic but largely insulated from church affairs.
“I didn’t know Cody from a hill of beans,” Comar said in a 2009 interview with the Clarion Herald.
Excellence was the goal
Comar, who was recommended for the position by Father Elmo Romagosa, the archdiocese’s public information officer, soon discovered what Archbishop Cody had in mind: He wanted Comar to create the best Catholic newspaper in the U.S.
“He said, ‘You’ll be in charge of content, and Father Romagosa will be in charge of mak- ing sure you don’t step too far over the line,’” Comar
recalled. “The best thing was he offered me $1,000 a month. In those days, $12,000 a year was pretty big.”
The Clarion Herald published its first issue on Feb. 23, 1963. On the strength of the Clarion Herald’s promise to print 125,000 broadsheet cop- ies each week – mandated by Archbishop Cody to be mailed into the home of every Catholic family – Century Graphics purchased a technologically advanced offset printing press that reproduced photographs with such clarity it looked
like high definition television when compared to the daily newspaper.
In the first several years of its existence, the Clarion Herald won every major award, forcing other dioceses and even daily newspapers to play catch-up.
Because the reproduction was superior, Comar dispatched photographer Frank H. Methe – his first staff hire from The Times-Picayune – to produce stunning photo spreads not only of churches and schools but also of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, photogenic stories that had wide community interest.
In the late 1960s, the Clarion Herald played a pivotal role in defeating a proposed Riverfront Expressway, an elevated highway that would have been erected on the edge of the Mississippi River just a few steps from Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral.
“We had an artist do a rendering of this huge ‘Wall of China’ between the cathedral and the river, and we put it on the front page,” Comar said. “When that picture hit the streets, it was a great visual presentation.”
Under Comar’s leadership, the Clarion Herald also regularly supported social justice initiatives such as desegregation of schools and business establishments. It even pushed for tax increases to support public education.
Among Comar’s fondest memories were Methe’s photographs of Archbishop Cody taking a helicopter ride over the jungle of undeveloped East Jefferson Parish in 1963 and simply pointing with his index finger.
“As I remember it, he created 26 parishes during his time,” Comar said. “He would fly around in his helicopter and say, ‘We’ll put one there and one there and one there.’”
Abp. Hannan a true leader
Another of Comar’s favorite photos was of Archbishop Philip Hannan, shortly after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, assessing the damage in St. Ber- nard Parish from the bow of a skiff. It painted Archbishop Hannan as “a man who was out in the field doing things that needed to be done.”
Politics remained Comar’s lifetime love. As a church lobbyist in the early 1970s, he got Gov. Edwin Edwards to approve spending $30 million on Catholic schools for educational services. That agreement came with a caveat: Edwards wanted Archbishop Hannan to come to the governor’s mansion so he could let him know who was responsible for such incredible largesse.
“The archbishop drove up to Baton Rouge and walked into the governor’s mansion with a paper bag,” Comar recalled. “Finally, the governor asked what he had inside the bag, and the archbishop pulled out three oranges. Edwards said, ‘Those are the most expensive oranges I ever bought.’”
Kirby Ducote, who worked for decades with Comar as a Catholic church lobbyist in Baton Rouge, said Comar had a way of never burning bridges with politicians.
“When he and I worked the Legislature, Emile was ‘good cop’ and I was ‘bad cop,’” said Ducote, now retired and living in Madisonville. “He was a gentleman and was very intelligent. He would be able to take statistics and turn them on their head, and we could use them for good purposes.”
Never gave up on people
After losing one close vote, a disappointed Comar told Rep. Bo Ackal of New Iberia, who had voted against the bill: “Bo, we win some and we lose some, but you’ll be on our schedule for next year.”
“We never classified anyone as friends or enemies,” Ducote said. “Some of our best friends were people who could not vote with us, but we under- stood because of the area they lived in. Edwin Edwards probably signed more legislation than any other governor that provided funds for schools and social progress. This was never a job for us. We enjoyed getting up in the morning.”
Ducote said when Comar was covering politics for the States-Item, Mafia boss Carlos Marcello was deported suddenly to Guatemala in 1961. Somehow, Comar got a ticket on the outbound flight.
“Emile said he watched him the entire way,” Ducote said. “The first thing Marcello did was take out a rosary.”
Comar’s funeral Mass was celebrated July 24 at Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Madeline, and their five children, Mary Beth Monteleone of Slidell; Mike Comar of Bay St. Louis; Paul Comar of Charleston; Ann Hilbig of Houston and David Comar of Tampa.