Cover Story

Remembering Wally

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Well known Lafayette insurance agent and man about town
Wally Romero may be gone, but he won't be forgotten.
By Erin Z. Bass

Local celebrity and Lafayette icon Wally Romero died Sept. 4. The circumstances surrounding his death are anything but pleasant and portray Romero, who once sported a "larger than life" persona in Lafayette's social circles, as a shadow of his former self. Friends and family members are reeling from the loss of a man who helped shape so many of their memories over the years.{nosexybookmark}

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Well known Lafayette insurance agent and man about town
Wally Romero may be gone, but he won't be forgotten.
By Erin Z. Bass

Local celebrity and Lafayette icon Wally Romero died Sept. 4. The circumstances surrounding his death are anything but pleasant and portray Romero, who once sported a "larger than life" persona in Lafayette's social circles, as a shadow of his former self. Friends and family members are reeling from the loss of a man who helped shape so many of their memories over the years.

Romero died at his home in the early morning hours with a rosary in his hands, struggling to find himself and his spirituality in the midst of a drug addiction, bipolar diagnosis, financial crisis, longtime complications from gastric bypass surgery and a homosexual lifestyle he may never have been entirely comfortable with. He was 53. Romero's sisters were in contact with him in his final days, and several friends say they stopped by or called a phone number that was disconnected in the days leading up to his death. Romero was trying to work through his demons. That he was unsuccessful is a huge loss for Lafayette.

Growing up on Ronald Boulevard
Walter J. Romero Jr. was born in February of 1957 to Walter J. Romero Sr. and Doris Higginbotham Romero on Ronald Boulevard, about a block from Our Lady of Fatima. The middle child among four sisters, he soon established himself as the lovable brother who knew how to make the others laugh, and how to get himself out of trouble.

The family frequently traveled to Europe and took cross-country road trips that inspired a love of travel in Romero at an early age. As a student at Fatima, he was outgoing, funny and had the ability to make others feel included in his conversations. His issues with weight began at this early age and may explain why he used humor to make himself likeable.

"We grew up down the same street, and I met him at his sixth birthday party. At that age, your parents pick out the gifts, and my mother picked out a pair of socks, so the first time we met, Wally probably didn't want to have much to do with me. But we got to know each other. We did pretty much everything together. He helped shape who I am."
- Kevin Gossen, architect and childhood friend

"He was always outgoing and pleasant. You could see him talking with a group of the students, and he was the life of that group. The students liked him. He was excited about life."  - Sr. Nira Ledoux, who taught Wally in junior high at Fatima "We used to travel extensively as kids. I was 9 when I first went to Paris, so he must have been around 17, 18. We traveled all over Europe, and we'd take huge road trips and stop anywhere we felt like and Wally always loved that."
- Julie Romero Dupre, sister

An Agent is Born
Romero's father was the first State Farm agent in south Louisiana and expected his only son to join him in the business after college. In fact, he expected all of his children to enter the business, says Dupre, and she's the only one who didn't. "I fought my daddy 'til the day he died," she says. About her brother's chances of going into another field, like the culinary one he was so interested in, she says, "He had a letter that my dad had written to State Farm on the day he was born saying your next agent was born today."

After graduating from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now UL Lafayette) in business, Romero attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris for a summer, but when he returned, he joined his father at State Farm. In a few short years, he had his own franchise. Insurance was not Romero's first choice of a career, but he was good at it.

"Their dad, Walter Romero, was the original agent in the whole area, and even though [Wally's] No. 1 interest wasn't insurance, I think he held onto his agency. He was voted Agency of the Year' many times. That was a medal on his lapel."  - Sam Wofford, brother-in-law

"I took out my first life insurance policy with him when I turned 18. He was so impressed with the fact that I was responsible enough to do that at the age of 18. I still hold it to this day, and I am 45. He was my insurance man all this time until he left four years ago."  - LaDonna Doucet, sharing her memory on the Martin & Castille website

Mangé Market & Friday Lunches
Eventually, Romero found a way to combine his father's plans with his own interests. In 1991, he started an antiques business with friends Sarah Citron and Kevin Gossen. They traveled to New Orleans, Houston and Paris for auctions and, while in France, Romero dined like a local, frequenting four-star restaurants and street vendors.

In 1997, he decided to try his hand at the restaurant business and opened Mangé Market on Johnston Street with Dupre and her husband. Designed to be an upscale deli that served lunch and also offered pre-packaged meals to go, the market quickly became a happening lunch spot, with Romero walking over from his insurance office during lunchtime to visit with customers.

Mangé Market only lasted two years, but Romero wasn't ready to give up his passion for food or antiques. He eventually began selling antiques out of one side of his office, and also started up his popular "Friday lunches."
People from all walks of life have memories of stopping by Romero's State Farm office on Fridays during lunchtime. Mangé Market may have closed, but he was still playing host and chef. Romero's love of food was incorporated into every aspect of his life and, as friend Donnie Bulliard points out, "Wally wasn't a Cajun cook. He had this international thing about him. He would cook stuff I never heard of. He was trained." His love of food would also prove to be one of his downfalls. At his largest, Romero weighed 440 pounds.

"He became interested in antiques in high school or college. I remember him buying his first house when he was maybe 18 or so and decorating it to the hilt."
- Julie Romero Dupre

"Wally was one of the smartest people I've ever known. He really knew a lot about French antiques. In Paris, they would call him Romeo instead of Romero The biggest problem that I experienced was his love for food. In Paris, all his favorite restaurants would bring courses and courses of food."
- Sarah Citron, friend

"One of our first buying trips, we went to Paris for Mangé Market. None of us knew what we were doing, but it was so much fun. I don't think Wally ever really wanted to acknowledge we weren't making the numbers. Financially, it was costing him a fortune, but he drug it out until he could see that this wasn't going to work out."
- James Williams, former Mangé Market manager and friend

"One of my favorite things when I was his account executive was Friday lunches. It did not matter to him if you were a salesperson, his best client, somebody in his office, or the mother-in-law of anybody in the area. It would always be a big crowd of people from different socioeconomic status, race, educational background, sexual preference. His hospitality was overwhelming."
- Erin Fitzgerald, Romero's former account executive at The Independent

Wally Romero lost more than 200 pounds after having gastric bypass surgery in 2003.

Losing the Weight
Weighing in at 422 pounds, Romero decided to have gastric bypass surgery in August 2003. A year later, in an interview with The Independent, he said that before the surgery he was at risk for diabetes and high blood pressure and was also concerned about having a heart attack, since his father died of one in 1992. After the surgery, Romero lost about 200 pounds and said, "I'm a lot happier now, not just because of the weight loss I was always large, and it's a part of me. Like anything, this is an awakening deal. It made me get a lot of things in order."

At first, things seemed to be going well post-surgery. Romero shopped for form-fitting clothes in the latest fashions in Europe, was watching what he ate and talked about starting to exercise. But to his friends, he seemed different. He wasn't his large, jolly self, parading around town in Hawaiian shirts anymore. "A lot of people don't initially recognize me," he said in 2004. "They take a double take. It's quite disturbing."

Dr. Phillip Gachassin, medical director of Lafayette General Medical Center's weight loss surgery program, says image issues after surgery are something all patients have to deal with. "People will look at them differently; they don't recognize them," he says. "That's something we educate our patients on in the beginning." Gachassin adds that friends and family members often don't understand what the patient is going through, which can cause distance between them.

To help patients cope with these issues, he recommends that patients join a support group or seek counseling. "When we do a surgery for someone to lose weight, we are only making it harder for them to eat; we are not fixing their head," he adds. "Weight loss is not a cure for any type of depression, disorder or addictions."

As a child, Romero was outgoing and funny; he graduated from Fatima High School in 1975.

Complications Romero began to experience a year later didn't help matters. In another interview with The Ind, he said he began losing so much weight that doctors removed his gall bladder in 2005. He also cut out gluten from his diet and saw a specialist in Los Angeles for digestion problems. For someone who loved to eat and enjoyed food so much, this must have been devastating for Romero.

"Gastric bypass at the time saved his life, but it was such a drastic change that he had an identity problem. He would walk up to people he'd gone to school with and introduce himself to them. They were embarrassed when they found out it was him."
- Sam Wofford

"After his surgery, he was like a totally different person. He wore an ascot around his neck. Wally was no longer the Wally I knew, but I was happy for him. I'm just not sure if he was very happy not being able to eat. He loved preparing food - having people over to eat, and all of that changed."  - Sarah Citron
"He got to a point where he really looked different. People said, Oh, you look horrible, you look like death, you need to gain weight,' when all his life he'd been hearing you need to lose weight.' It wasn't easy."  - Kevin Gossen

Coming Out
After surgery, Romero became a lot more open about his homosexuality. His family found out he was gay in the late '90s, when he was in his early 40s. His father had died by that time, and Romero may have felt his mother and sisters would be more understanding, which they were. Romero's friends say losing the weight and meeting a serious boyfriend gave him an "I don't care anymore" attitude. Unfortunately, the more than 10-year relationship ended (the boyfriend is now married), and other boyfriends came and went.

After State Farm shuttered his insurance agency, Romero continued his antique business; he took frequent antiques buying trips to Paris and always brought friends along. The 1997 trip, below, included Le Marche Owner Maddy LaRive, Romero, and friend James Williams in the Hippo Bar.

With all of the recent press surrounding the Rutgers student who jumped to his death after two classmates secretly video taped him having a sexual encounter with another male, it's worth considering if Romero felt devalued for being homosexual. He attended Catholic school and grew up in an era and town where being gay wasn't talked about. Why did he wait until his forties to come out? Romero's sexuality seems to have played a role in his struggles over the years.

"I think we all knew in the back of our minds. What 7-year-old worries about decorating his room? I think he felt much better after [coming out]."
- Julie Romero Dupre

"I never had this conversation with him, but I think for a long time he hid the fact that he was gay. People's tolerance of gays and lesbians in his generation is not what it is today. A lot of the choices he probably made in his life was because he didn't feel accepted. A lot of people in the gay community, who have this amazing drive and charisma, their lives at some point implode because they are addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex - because of the shame they feel about being gay."
- Blake Devillier, friend

"I found Lafayette to be very conservative, and I think that in the beginning a core group of us knew, and I think a lot of people put two and two together publicly. When [the serious boyfriend] came into the picture was when he was like, I want everyone to know.' Maybe in his early life, it could have been a concern, but I don't think those pressures led to an ending of any type."  - James Williams

Dark Days
Life should have been good with Romero having lost more than 200 pounds and finally feeling comfortable in his sexuality, but the first shoe was about to drop. In the past, State Farm had been concerned about his mingling of the insurance and antiques businesses but overlooked it because of his success as an agent. But in September 2007, Romero's insurance office was abruptly shut down by State Farm. The company never would comment on the matter, but family members say it was due to mismanagement of premium funds.

With his business gone, Romero continued to deal in antiques and hold sales out of his home. But the following year, in August of 2008, the community was again shocked by the news that Romero was arrested for stealing a George Rodrigue painting, which he'd agreed to sell for a friend. Romero pleaded guilty to selling the painting for $25,000 and keeping the money. That same month, he filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection.

On another trip to Honfleur, France: friend James Williams, Romero and frequent travel companion Susie Fontenot.

Friends and family all say it was drugs that mostly accounted for his downfall, both financially and mentally. One friend speculates that Romero used drugs for at least a 10-year period before his death, starting with cocaine but eventually moving on to heavier substances. His sister Terry Romero Wofford says he went to rehab three different times over the years and, in March, she checked him into Tyler Mental Health Clinic for severe depression.
"Certainly, I think the reason Wally died is he was an obsessive compulsive personality. He couldn't quit, get away from it [drugs], and it certainly ended his life. As wonderful as he was, he had this side of him that was obsessive and compulsive, but it was also the trait that made him great."
- Sharon Moss, friend

"We had a blast together, we were just real good friends, and then drugs came into the picture. It destroyed my life for a while, and it just totally destroyed his life."
- Donnie Bulliard, friend

Romero with the women in his life: from left, sisters
Julie Romero Dupre, Gail Liggio and Diane Schomburg, mom Doris Romero and sister Terry Romero Wofford.
His grandmother is seated in front.

"Wally was the type of person that did everything with full gusto. He'd always talked his way out of anything, and this became too large for him."
- Kevin Gossen

"Little by little we all sort of grew out of it, and he never did. It unfortunately took control of him He was my agent and when the thing happened with State Farm, they sent me a memo. To this day I don't know if anyone knows what really happened."
- James Williams

Lights Out
When Wally Romero died Sept. 4, the electricity at his home on Smith Street had been turned off the month before, and he was using candles for light. A fire started in the early morning hours, likely caused by a candle near the bed, and Romero wasn't able to get out of the house. Reports of Lafayette's favorite resident dying broke and alone are technically true, as no one else was reported to be in the house and Romero had filed for bankruptcy two years earlier, but his family members say they were still in contact with him and trying to help. Sister Wofford adds that Romero had been staying with friends in the days before his death, so the family didn't even know he was home that evening. She was also making preparations to pay his electricity bill and get him moved out to a rent house.

Romero, with niece Alexis Joubert

Dupre says he was diagnosed as being bipolar recently, which, in addition to the drugs, may have been the root of his problem. He was still his old self at times, traveling with the rest of the family to Gulf Shores for their annual beach trip in May and taking another road trip to Houston at the end of August to visit sister Diane. A prayer Romero wrote before the beach trip that was read at his funeral gives some insight into how he was feeling toward the end. Titled "I Lone," its first few lines read, "I lone for the day when my body, mind, and soul will be one. I lone for the time when my life is truly viable again, where I am needed and sought after for any contributions to your humanity I can offer."

After Romero's Sept. 9 funeral at Martin & Castille (by press time, his cause of death had not been released), mourners moved to City Bar, and the party lasted into the evening.

So many people in Lafayette have at least one lasting memory of Wally Romero. Whether it's the first time they met him, a party they attended at his house or his donating money or time to their cause, it's hard to bring up Wally Romero's name without hearing a story.

"I was at the dry cleaners and Wally had seen me there across the room and asked someone, Who is that?' The next time, I'm standing in the cleaners with my cocktail dress after this party and he comes over and picks me up and says, Sharon Moss, I finally get to meet you.' He picked me up over his head and that was my intro to Wally."
- Sharon Moss

Fire damage is visible from the back of Romero's house
in Arbolada subdivision; the front of the house is
overgrown and has plywood on the windows.

"He always seemed to touch everybody in their own way. He was always a giving, giving person. Even in his hard times at the end, it still came out, not like the old Wally, not as many times or as often as people wanted it to come out, but that old spirit was still there."
- Sam Wofford

"One of my memories is walking into Lafitte's [Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans] late on a Friday night. The place was packed, and he charged through and he went straight to a back room, and there was a grand piano. He sat down and just started playing Dr. John and Professor Longhair, and he knew all the lyrics. It was such a New Orleans moment. It was a happy, happy time."
- Erin Fitzgerald

"I lived in the apartments in Bendel Gardens, and one night I was invited to Wally's dinner party. He cooked this elaborate meal, and he would sing while he was serving food and everybody was laughing. They moved the furniture in the big room where the fireplace was, and they would dance all night long. I couldn't believe it, I had so much fun. I didn't think people lived like this here."
- James Williams

"Wally was one of those kinds, if I live to be 150 years old, I will never meet anyone like that again. He was the life of Lafayette the whole time he lived there."
- Donnie Bulliard

"Wally was the only brother I ever had, the best I could ask for. For the bit of bad he's had the last few years, he was a great man, a great person. The world is a better place for having had him in it."
- Julie Romero Dupre