Dennis Persica: Two people who helped nurture New Orleans

One of the great things about being a newspaper journalist is that we get to meet famous people. We don’t often tell you that because we like to foster the notion that we work selflessly for the public good.

Post-presidential Jimmy Carter, post-public service Henry Kissinger and, my favorite, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, are on the list of luminaries I have met on the job.

This occupation also introduces us to people whose lives just ended, when we are assigned to write an obituary for someone we didn’t have the chance to meet when they were alive. I was introduced to Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis, the man who designed the Superdome and the Rivergate, that way.

This weekend, I handled obituaries for two New Orleanians beloved by the people who knew them. One was the artist Robert Guthrie, the other was public school music teacher Yvonne Busch.

Generosity was a trait that was common to both.

“He would give away his artwork to people who were friends,” Lise Ferraro said of Guthrie, her former brother-in-law.

Busch often did what many teachers do throughout their working lives — pay for something their students may not have been able to afford themselves. She also was generous with her time, her former students said.

Another thread that united Busch and Guthrie was that they both were involved in the culture of New Orleans. Guthrie has a Jazz and Heritage Festival poster to his credit. It was for the 1992 fest, but don’t bother to go looking to buy one. I hear they’re impossible to find. He also did a poster for the Crescent City Connection race, and the artwork for official proclamations for the city of New Orleans.

Guthrie’s fame crossed international borders. He designed a poster for a French jazz festival, and he taught printmaking for two years in Mexico. He may have left behind bands of Mexican artists influenced by his classes, but it was a two-way street. His friends talked about how much Mexico influenced him as well.

Busch’s influence is nothing short of amazing. James Rivers, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Herlin Riley and Joseph “Smokey” Johnson are just a few of the many New Orleans musicians who studied under Busch during her 32 years of teaching in the public school system.

For Riley, a drummer who played with Wynton Marsalis for more than a decade, the influence was generational. For many African Americans in New Orleans, if the family is involved in music, it tends to stay involved in music. And that was the case with Riley’s family.

In the 1940s, Busch had played trumpet in a band with Riley’s uncle, Melvin Lastie. Later, she would teach Riley’s mother, Betty Lastie, and another uncle, Walter “Popee” Lastie, both of whom became professional musicians. Busch also taught Riley’s cousin, Joe Lastie, who today is a professional drummer as well.

Sullivan Dabney Jr., another of Busch’s former students who became a professional musician, said there will never be another one like her.

Two bright lights were extinguished last week, and I can’t help but think about that traditional song, “Over in the Glory Land,” and the line about joining the angels’ band.

In the next couple of days, loved ones will get together to say goodbye. They’ll mourn, but they’ll also celebrate the lives of two people they knew and loved.

Some of us didn’t know them at all, yet they left us so much in their debt.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.