Former state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom dies

Former Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, who was one of the state’s most powerful political figures from the 1980s until his retirement in 2007, died Saturday at age 78.

His 28-year tenure as the commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry was marked with innovations as well as controversy.

Odom was taken to Lane Regional Medical Center near his home in Zachary after developing breathing problems late Friday, said Randal Johnson, Odom’s close friend for more than 30 years. Odom died about 7:15 a.m. Saturday.

Charlet Funeral Home will handle the arrangements. A viewing will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at the First Baptist Church in Zachary, Johnson said. A funeral, with full military honors, is scheduled at the church for Tuesday at 10 a.m. Burial will follow at the Beulah-Pride Cemetery.

“Bob was a champion for the Louisiana agriculture community and his work will reverberate for decades,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a prepared statement. “His list of accomplishments is truly impressive and his passionate service for Louisiana and the country will not be forgotten.”

The governor ordered flags to fly at half-staff on state buildings until Friday in remembrance of Odom.

Odom’s 28-year tenure as the commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry was marked with innovations as well as controversy.

“He changed the way the commissioner of agriculture operated,” said Louisiana Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson, who was present when Odom announced his first run for commissioner in 1979. “It was more of an attitude he took of how the job was to be handled. He kind of set the tone for (current) Commissioner (Mike) Strain.”

“He was a champion for agriculture,” said former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, with whom Odom often crossed swords politically. “He was smart and tenacious and fought hard for the things he believed in.”

Odom repeatedly has been described as a “populist,” and his organization helped elect Democrats around the state. His acolytes held offices that led the Democratic Party during the ’80s and ’90s through the first years of the 21st century.

“As an elected official, Odom mentored and groomed a generation of leaders and helped to build a strong Democratic Party that fought for Louisiana families,” Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson said in a prepared statement.

“It wasn’t just about Democrats. It was about people he supported. He played a very significant role in elections,” said the dean of the state Senate, Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, who chairs the Agriculture Committee in the upper chamber as he did for the years he was a member of the state House.

As the head of the Agriculture Department in an agrarian state, Odom led the efforts to market Louisiana products as a brand. For instance, he pressed legislation that would ensure Chinese crawfish wasn’t being labeled Cajun.

While the state had long been known for rice and sugar cane, Odom built up the markets for chicken, crawfish and other agricultural products. His programs eradicated the boll weevil, a pest that threatens cotton crops, Thompson said.

Despite health struggles, Odom attended his granddaughter’s graduation in Monroe last week, Thompson said.

During his years in office, Odom constantly was in the State Capitol pushing legislation for farmers and the ag-business community. Odom was muscular with imposing height, cotton-white hair and piercing blue eyes. His body, of late, had gotten weak and he had trouble with mobility, said Johnson, who now is a lobbyist with the Southern Strategy Group. Johnson had been deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry for 14 years.

Odom’s intellect was still sharp on Friday, Johnson said.

Odom and his wife, Millie, returned to their Zachary home from Monroe late Thursday. Johnson said Odom had asked for his help on Friday to locate his military discharge documents.

Odom had been a U.S. Marine. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Johnson said Odom didn’t feel death imminent Friday afternoon, but he was trying to ensure everything was in order.

Odom is survived by his wife, two children and four grandchildren.

Odom grew up on a cotton and dairy farm near Haynesville in Claiborne Parish. He graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. In 1960, he went to work in the Agriculture Department. He became chief of the pesticide division, then was an executive assistant to then-Commissioner Dave L. Pearce.

In 1979, Odom beat incumbent Commissioner Gil Dozier, who in 1980 was convicted of extortion and bribery and later served time in federal prison.

He was easily re-elected over the years until the 2007 campaign, when in seeking his eighth term, he found himself in a runoff with Mike Strain, a state representative and veterinarian from St. Tammany Parish. Odom decided not to continue and announced his retirement, with Strain standing by his side.

“Louisiana lost a giant in the agricultural industry,” Strain said in a prepared statement. “Most notably and early on in his tenure, Odom combined all aspects of the agricultural industry under one department, making it more modern and operating more efficiently, and making it a model for other states.”

There were some failed ventures along the way. A southwest Louisiana cane syrup mill near Lacassine failed after the infusion of more than $70 million in taxpayer funds. Odom caught heat not only on the investment but for using state employees who were not trained construction workers.

The project was supposed to evolve into an ethanol plant. The mill was sold to a company that fell behind on payments, leaving the state in a bind because it had backed the bank loans.

Odom also had his own legal fights. He was indicted in August 2002 on 21 counts. The indictments accused Odom of accepting bribes for contracts and using department assets and personnel to build homes for his children.

Odom’s lead attorney, Mary Olive Pierson, said it was a political prosecution. Odom vowed to clear his name and sought a speedy trial that never came.

As court wrangling spanned the years, most of the various charges against Odom were either thrown out by the court or dropped by prosecutors. Finally in April 2009, a state district judge formally dismissed what was left of the case against Odom.

“I hate the fact that those indictments are what people think of,” Johnson said. “I was with the man every day during that entire ordeal. I can tell you that this was a man of integrity. This was a man of honor.”

Michelle Millhollon contributed to this report.