Baquet: God has never stopped chasing me

Harold Baquet has spent most of his life coaxing the very best out of people.
As Loyola University’s official photographer for the past quarter century – a job that required him to be part philosopher, part stand-up comic, part cheerleader – Baquet understood the magic behind getting people to relax so they could put their best nose forward.


Sometimes, a prominent chin or an elongated forehead could be solved with a joke – Do you know the difference between the Josephites and the Jesuits? The Josephites are Jesuits without the real estate.

Sometimes it could be fixed with some elementary geometry. He could hold the camera high and shoot down or the lighting could be adjusted to create more merciful shadows. A receding hairline could be made to look as lush as Audubon Park on a May morning.

Baquet, 56, enjoys life, which is why he decided to retire at the end of December, in part to devote more time to fighting the cancer that doctors told him six years ago might kill him in six months.

“I’ve been on a roll,” Baquet said. “No way was I supposed to live 6 1/2 years. It’s just a miracle, and you’ve got acknowledge it. Some things you can chalk up to probability, but when it happens again and again and again, you have to conduct your Jesus experiment and acknowledge that, hey, man, he’s calling you. If you’re willing to listen for him, he’s out there looking for you.”

As a cradle Catholic, Baquet grew up attending St. Peter Claver Church and graduated from St. Augustine High School. His mother Audrey Ganier Baquet cooked for the Josephite priests, the Blessed Sacrament Sisters and the Sisters of the Holy Family, and his father Arsene was a master shoemaker who taught the trade at Booker T. Washington High School and cobbled for the high and mighty, including New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri.

Arsene Baquet died of lung cancer when Harold was just 2 1/2 years old.

“I remember him walking me around and playing with me, and I remember him being sick,” Baquet said. “I remember we had a hospital bed at the house, and I remember cranking up the darn bed and him yelling at my mom to come get me because I was cranking the foot of the bed straight up in the air.”

Baquet learned how to craft shoes and leather goods from his older brothers. One of the tricks for ensuring a glove-like fit was to take a plaster cast of a customer’s feet.

“You’d come in at the end of the day when your feet were all swollen,” Baquet said. “The insole was based on your actual foot casting.”

At age 11, Baquet picked up his first camera – a Kodak box model that had a tiny lens with a nearly infinite focal range. He snuck up on his older cousin Myrtle one day at a family gathering and snapped the shutter. She chased him around the house, but when the film was developed, “it was a cute picture.”

When Myrtle died a year later, Baquet’s photo graced her funeral program.

“It was like, wow, I got a little recognition for a photograph,” Baquet said. “So that was something I would think about when I saw photographs from then on. When I looked at magazines, I would not just look at the image but try to imagine who was taking it, where the camera was and why I liked it. I was learning the graphic language and learning to communicate with those rectangles.”

Baquet was married briefly right after high school, and in 1983, his son Harold Jr. was born. He was gorgeous. He had Down syndrome.

“He was just the most beautiful little boy,” Baquet said.

When little Harold was a toddler, he got sick. Doctors diagnosed it as leukemia. While his son was preparing to take a round of chemotherapy – “he was about to do some chemo that was nastier than anything I’ve ever gone through” – Baquet didn’t know where to turn.

He attended a Catholic charismatic healing prayer session. He was searching, bargaining really, for a lifeline for his son.

“In the midst of all his torment, he would make sweet eyes at you, smile for you,” Baquet said. “And it would just break your heart. He was just so courageous. And throughout it all, I mean, he didn’t know how to complain. He was perfect, you know?”

His son died at the age of 3 1/2. They remain connected.

“When I see the little chemos I’ve gone through compared to watching my little boy go through that, that’s nothing,” Baquet said. “To go there and see your name up there on that stone … Man, I can’t wait to see him again. He’ll be the first one – he and my mom.”

Worked for Dutch
Baquet’s first full-time photography job came in the mid-1980s as the official cameraman for Mayor Dutch Morial. That’s where he met the love of his life, Cheron, and they were married in 1995.

Baquet threw himself into the job with his typical passion. One day he knelt down on the cement to take a picture of the fastidiously dressed mayor, and he wound up with a hole in the knee of his pants.

“Dutch loved to tease, and he knew if you had a chink in your armor, he was quick to pounce,” Baquet said. “He saw my pants and said, ‘Gosh, you’re representing the city and you’ve got holes in your pants.’ I kinda joked with him and said, ‘But Mr. Mayor, I’m the best in my price range.’”

Baquet arrived at Loyola in 1989, and his political training allowed him easily to “maneuver in sensitive environments.” One of his greatest blessings was to meet Jesuit professors – people like Fathers James Carter, C.J. McNaspy, and Gerald Fagin – and engage them in their academic expertise as well as soak in their spirituality.

“It was just awesomeness,” Baquet said. “I got to hang out with these brilliant guys. How humbling that was. Jim Carter is one of the most incredible intellects, just like McNaspy. And they were feeding those kids with a firehose. These were master fathers who I got to call brothers.”

Cresson was the photo icon
When Baquet took over at Loyola, he realized he was standing in the massive shadow cast by former university photographer Russ Cresson, who had held the position for 44 years.

“I walk in that studio and his No. 19 shrimp boots are in the corner and I’m trying to fill them,” Baquet said. “Everybody is talking about this guy. He’s a rock star. I’m thinking, ‘How do I fill in for this guy?’”

Eight of Cresson’s nine children attended Loyola on a fantastic employment perk: children of full-time Loyola employees went to school tuition-free.

“Mr. Cresson did pretty good with the tuition exemption as an employee benefit,” Baquet said. “That’s hard to beat. However, I found out the real money is in the major medical, buddy.”

As always, Baquet is continuing to pray as well to fight. His doctor in Texas says if he gains another eight pounds in another two months, he may be a candidate for additional surgery on his liver. And more chemo.

Buying time
“Any time you can burn it or cut it and remove some of it, that’s buying me more time,” Baquet said. “They’re never going to cure it, but it’s about buying time and just living. We carry our most precious possessions in clay vessels. It’s the life of the fugitive, as if I was a wanted criminal, knowing that they’re right behind me. They’re going to catch me eventually, but today is a beautiful day.”

As always, Baquet is carrying his cross, not dragging it.

“You can’t turn off the grace,” he said. “I’ve just realized that I have a battalion of people praying for me. It’s not based on anything I do. That grace is something real. When you’re as needy as I am, it almost becomes like a dialogue. Some people are generators of grace and some people are conduits of grace. I’m just, apparently, a great consumer of grace, and I’m totally willing to accept that.”

When the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced after Hurricane Katrina that Our Lady of Good Counsel Church – where Baquet and Cheron were devoted parishioners – would be closed, Baquet was stung by the decision. Even though the church was padlocked, he found a way to get back inside.

“You’ve heard of bi-location?” Baquet asked.

The police came and took him away.

Baquet struggled mightily with the decision by former Archbishop Alfred Hughes to close the church. Then he rejoiced in the news a few years later from Archbishop Gregory Aymond that the Center of Jesus the Lord – the same charismatic group where he sought spiritual solace during his son’s terminal illness – would relocate to Our Lady of Good Counsel after repairs are made to the church.

Amazing ‘grace’
But another amazing “grace” thing has happened.

During Baquet’s illness, Archbishop Hughes has remained in contact with him and prayed at his hospital bedside.

“Archbishop Hughes says he prays for me every day,” Baquet said. “I’m humbled by the people who are praying for me and come to me and tell me they’re praying for me. I want them to claim me. I so want them to realize that the only reason I am here is because people like them are praying for me, and it’s real. It’s not alphabetical, it’s not mathematical, but my faith has become something real.”

Baquet’s clay vessel is thinner these days. He was taking his kayak out on Bayou Desert near Lake Maurepas on July 23 – his birthday – when he went to wash his hands in the water. When he brought his left hand up, he saw that his platinum wedding ring – the one with the etched herringbone pattern – was missing from his finger.

Baquet panicked. As the first black scuba instructor in Louisiana, he reviewed his options. He could rent some gear and a metal detector and search for the ring.

Then he decided to call Cheron. “She could tell in my voice that something had happened,” Baquet said. “She was just so relieved that I didn’t hurt myself or do something stupid.”

A hollow feeling
Baquet accepted that the ring was gone. On Jan. 8, a few days after his official retirement and six months after he lost the ring, Baquet got a text from Kyle Encar in the Loyola photo office.

“Did you lose a ring?” the text asked.

“Is it a platinum band?” Baquet replied.

“Yes.”

As it turned out, Baquet had rinsed his hands in the studio sink the day before he went on his kayak trip, and the band fell to the floor, coming to rest under the coffee stand.

“My joke is, ‘Wow, you swept the floor. I never would’ve come up with that,’” Baquet said.

Another moment of grace, another moment of God coaxing the best out of Baquet, in the midst of the cross.

“Man, you know, God’s been after me,” Baquet said. “I think the cross is the language God uses to communicate with some of his favorite people. I definitely feel like one of his favorites.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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