Photo Gallery: A Celebration of Griff

by Leslie Turk

No rainstorm could stop several hundred people from gathering at the Horse Farm to honor Griff Blakewood Sunday afternoon.

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[This story has been updated to include Rick Swanson's eulogy.]

It was a fitting beginning to a fitting tribute to the late, great UL geosciences professor Griff Blakewood. A double rainbow hovered over some 350 people who gathered at the Horse Farm to celebrate the man whose life was cut short at the age of 54 but whose legacy lives on - in large part in the place of the gathering. That rainbow, as you all know, followed an extended rainstorm - but mud and a wet ground did not deter those who planned the "Celebration of Griff" event late Sunday afternoon at this site of natural beauty so close to Griff's heart.

It was Griff who in 2005 guided his then-students studying renewable resources to fight to preserve the pristine acreage, which meant they would have to take on the university's administration to undo a planned sale of the property for commercial development. He inspired them then, helping them bring all parties (except for the developers, of course) to a peaceful resolution, and continued to make Lafayette a better community until his death on May 26 after a year-long battle with cancer.

The tribe of followers walked, road bikes together from downtown and carpooled to the site, some with their musical instruments in tow, to celebrate their friend, along with Griff's wife Alice and the couple's two sons, Eldred Griffin V and Harrison Kirby.

Friends sang along to Griff's favorite songs, and slowly, one by one, they laid candles at the base of a large oak tree, creating an impromtu memorial.

Environmentalist, activist, preservationist, Griff lived his life to make the world a better place - and he did it with a non-judgmental, loving heart. He was our Mahatma Ghandi.

"Everybody left with a little more earth on their feet than they came with," says EB Brooks, one of Griff's former students, close friend and a Save the Horse Farm founder. "Griff would have loved it."

An anonymous donor stepped up to provide a 40-foot-by-100-foot tent when it became clear the rain might continue through the celebration, and it overflowed with attendants.

Rick Swanson, an associate professor and pre-law advisor in UL's Department of Political Science, was the officiant who delivered the eulogy (see below), followed by testimonials from Brooks, Whitney Broussard, Greg Guidroz, Marie-Isabel Pautz, Emily Neustrom, Michael Clayton, Danica Adams and Billy Finney.

"A blue heron took flight during the testimonials," Brooks says, "and the sunset was absolutely gorgeous at the end."

[Editor's Note: The Blakewood family and all of Griff's friends wish to thank Lourdes' Hearts of Hospice for its loving care of Griff in his final days. A Griff Blakewood Memorial Fund has been set up at Chase Bank; donations can also be made to the Acadiana Greenspace Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation of Acadiana in Griff's memory.]

Rick Swanson's eulogy:

Today we come together as a community, a family, a tribe, to remember and celebrate the life of an exceptionally amazing human being: the Rev. Dr. Eldred Griffin Blakewood IV, or, as he thankfully preferred to be called, just "Griff."

My name is Rick Swanson, I was a colleague and friend of Griff, and he asked that I give his main eulogy. It's the greatest honor anyone's ever given me.

There are few people in this world who have affected so many others, and have affected them so profoundly, as Griff Blakewood. How many people, upon their death, not only have front page stories about them in the media, but are referred to as a "visionary," or a "prophet," or are called "The Mahatma Ghandi" of their city?

Clearly he was an extraordinary individual, and no words can adequately express our feelings today, or do him justice in describing him.

Yet though it's impossible for me to summarize Griff's life in a few minutes, he made my task somewhat less difficult. Griff asked that I describe the person he became in trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. The single best source of Jesus's teachings is the Sermon on the Mount, so that will be the yardstick I will use to measure Griff's life.

Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers." (Matthew 5:9). Griff passionately desired humans to be at peace with the Earth.  He drew vitality from nature through canoeing, camping and stargazing. He drumbeated the destructive dangers of technology and consumerism run amok, or what he referred to as "the Matrix." He taught sustainable living to his students at UL, and didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk, and he pedaled the pedal. He often traveled by bicycle, and he fought to make this town more bike-friendly.  He advised and worked with the student environmental group on campus, called SPEAK, through which he spearheaded recycling at UL and major community events and inspired and helped lead the charge to preserve this sacred space surrounding us at this moment. Going beyond this community, for decades he was an active board member of the statewide Louisiana Environmental Action Network, LEAN, and he epitomized everything they represented.  Griff also taught and practiced peaceful coexistence between people. I never saw him angry, even when it would have been justified.  One day I asked him if he ever got angry. He replied "yeah, one time I drove in Los Angeles traffic." Griff was indeed the most peaceful man I've ever known.

Jesus said "You are the salt of the earth." (Matthew 5:13)  But what is salt?  Salt adds flavor, provides nourishment, and is a preservative.  Griff added flavor to our lives, from his dancing with wild abandon to musical grooves, to giving the same thought-provoking answer whenever someone asked what he taught.  He would reply "Reality."  Griff nourished our souls with wise words and extra-long hugs.  Griff fought to preserve our planet and this park, and he preserved the bonds of the tribe by creating pancake breakfasts, group camping trips, and music and dance outings as spaces where people could form new connections and strengthen old ones.  Griff wasn't merely salt of the Earth, he was a giant museum-quality specimen of crystalline sodium chloride.

Jesus said "A city on a hill can not be hidden." (Matthew 5: 14). You look up at a city on a hill, and to know Griff, was to look up to him in many ways, for he richly lived each day to the fullest, without regret.  Plus, think back to the countless community events where you saw him.  There were 400,000 attendees at Festival International, yet not one of them was as recognizable as that tall guy standing in the front row whose pointed feathered hat rose above the crowd, bouncing to the beat, shouting to the world "GRIFF IS HERE." Griff was a city on a hill because his presence, energy and zest for life could not be hidden.

Jesus said "You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others." (Matthew 5:14-16).  Over the years, Griff taught thousands of students.  He was a beacon of inspiration to them and others, many of whom recently posted sentiments on his online Facebook page.  Here is only one of the messages:

"I am on my way back to Lafayette from Grand Isle with 45 middle-schoolers who camped on the beach last night. We planted around 300 bitter panicum on the dunes in the state park this morning.  [this plant helps prevent erosion]. Because of you I am spreading the love for this planet and doing good things for Louisiana."

So not only did Griff's light shine, but he was a torchbearer who passed his torch onto others, who are now passing that torch on as well.

Jesus said "Do not worry about your life."  (Matthew 6: 25) Griff was the most fearless person I've ever met. He challenged people to overcome self-doubt, often by firmly encouraging them with the mantra "No fear!" His ease set you at ease. And even in the face of death, he never displayed the slightest anxiety about dying. His only thought was that Alice, Blake, and Harrison be taken care of.

Jesus said "Do not judge." (Matthew 7:1). Griff was the most non-judgmental person I've ever known. He intensely wanted everyone to live authentically without fear or guilt. He accepted and loved you even if you disagreed with him, or even if you screwed up.  He never told you what was "right" or "wrong," or what you "should" or "shouldn't" do. He simply pointed out possibilities, and the positive or negative consequences of those options. Of course it was obvious what choice he thought was best: "You can love, or you can be destroyed by hate; You can be free, or you can be enslaved by fear." Those choices are clear, but he taught by example--his life was his message how he wished others would live. Regardless of your choices, he would still unconditionally love you, without judgment--even if you committed the ultimate sin of not recycling.

Jesus said "You shall know a tree by its fruit."  (Matthew 7:15-20). Griff was more than a tree that bore good fruit, he nurtured seeds that grew into a grove of fruit-bearing trees. The people whose lives he touched have created much beauty in this world already. The saving of this Horse Farm. Helping schoolchildren discover the wonder, awe, and joy of camping on a beach under the milky way at night, and then by day preserving that same beach for their own future children. And far too many other accomplishments to list here. And, along with his amazing wife Alice, Griff successfully raised two sons- Harrison, who just graduated high school with honors and Blake, who recently shared with all of us that because of everything his dad taught him, he can handle whatever the world can throw at him.

"You shall know a tree by its fruit." Griff once shared a metaphor that regularly inspires me.  Imagine a net.  When you lift one of the nodes of the net, the surrounding nodes are lifted as well.  But similarly, if you pull down that node, the surrounding nodes are lowered. That net represents the connections each of us has with the people in our lives. When we lift ourselves up, we lift up those around us. But when we allow ourselves to sink, we pull down those around us.  Griff was the most uplifting person I've ever known. The various speakers' words earlier, and all of you here tonight, are testaments to that fact. Thus, Griff wasn't just a tree that produced good fruit, he produced an orchard. And that orchard is us here today, and many more who aren't. WE are his legacy.

Lastly, Jesus said "everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock." (Matthew 7:24-25).  So, when the storms of life come, only those with firm convictions will stay true to those convictions.

What were Griff's convictions? A newspaper interviewed Griff several years ago.  Listen to his own words about his life's mission: "My career at UL has been the most meaningful and important period in my life . . . I believe that I truly found my "calling" in teaching my passion and seeing my students respond by not just believing they could make a better world, but actually accomplishing it. I have been, and hopefully will continue to be, part of a learning community of truly beautiful human beings who care for each other and the amazing space we share. " . . . (interview by Dege Legg in The Independent, March 30, 2011.)

The rains of cancer came down on Griff.   A flood of suffering and pain rose through his body.  And the winds of contrary ideas always beat against him.  Yet his love of people and this Earth never faltered.  In these past months, where other people in Griff's medical situation would have quit work to try to finish their "bucket list," or travel the world, Griff stayed here to be with his family, and he continued to teach his students throughout the entire semester.  He also selflessly continued to work to improve his community in ways he knew he would not live to see, such as by attending public meetings on how best to preserve this park-this sacred space--for the enjoyment of future generations.  Griff had no separate "bucket list" because his every-day life was his bucket list.  He dedicated his life to his family, his students, and his ideals, and every single day, he consistently strove to make this world a better place.  Griff was that rare individual who actually practiced what he preached until the very last.  The unshakeable house of Griff was built on the rock of his love for this world.  And for so many people, Griff was a rock for them, and a foundational core at the heart and soul of this town.

And when did Griff discover this love?  More than once he said it was only after he became a father to Blake and Harrison, only when he experienced firsthand a parent's unconditional love for one's children, that he finally understood the love that Jesus talked about.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  You are the salt of the Earth.  A city on a hill can not be hidden. You are the light of the world.  Do not worry about your life.  Do not judge.  You shall know a tree by its fruit. When I compare these teachings of Jesus with Griff's life as I saw it, I can honestly say that Griff lived these teachings more than anyone I've ever met.

Griff asked that I describe the man he became in trying to follow the teachings of Jesus.  He became not simply a good man, but a truly great man.  I believe Jesus would say "Well done."

We too say "Griff, well done." You rode the wave while it lasted, and you rode it better than most. We are all blessed beyond words to have had the fortune to experience you in our lives. And now that you've broken through to the other side, may you forever spiral outward as you dance on the edge of evolving fractals that make up the infinite possibilities of existence.  Griff, we thank you, we love you, and we will keep up the good world.