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George Rodrigue remembered as Cajun and Blue Dog artist, philanthropist, helpful soul

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Performer Jennifer Jones dances at the conclusion of a funeral Mass for artist George Rodrigue, in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gerald Herbert

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Performer Jennifer Jones dances at the conclusion of a funeral Mass for artist George Rodrigue, in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gerald Herbert

NEW ORLEANS - Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue was remembered Thursday as someone who, despite his fame, would step away from dignitaries to help a child, raised millions of dollars for charity and was told in high school to stop his doodling.

"I ... suspect he offered God a Blue Dog painting," Archbishop Gregory Aymond told about 400 people in St. Louis Cathedral during a funeral Mass for Rodrigue. He gained fame for his round-eyed, perk-eared dog paintings after decades of producing works of southwest Louisiana and Cajun life. He died of cancer on Dec. 14 at age 69.

Many of the mourners wore Blue Dog pins. Men also wore Blue Dog neckties.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who spoke before the Mass, said Rodrigue loved to tell the story of how her husband, who was a high-school history teacher, "kicked him out of class, telling him he would never amount to anything if he didn't stop drawing all over everything."

Rodrigue became a historian in art, she said, documenting a way of life.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who named Rodrigue the state artist laureate, described how the painter sidestepped reporters and dignitaries at an opening to sit on the floor with his daughter and give her pointers about drawing.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond told of his philanthropy, giving paintings and prints to raise money for various charities and creating the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, which raises money for art scholarships and education.

"He has just been phenomenal with nonprofits for education," Charmaine Caccioppi, executive vice-president and CEO of United Way of Louisiana, said outside the cathedral before the funeral.

Flowers in the church included a 3-foot-high, bright red "Blue Dog" of airbrushed carnations, sent by state Republican officials.

As he walked in the procession that brought Rodrigue's coffin up the aisle, Rod Ashworth, a retired Navy commander who now lives in Prairieville, held up a small sign reading "CHS of New Iberia Class of 1962." A Blue Dog face stuck up from one corner.

"Our class asked me to carry the sign," he said before the service. He said he and retired oilfield worker Bobby Boudreaux were the only members of the Catholic High School class at Thursday's service. Most members planned to attend Friday's service and to celebrate Rodrigue's life Dec. 28 at his Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette, where he gave Christmas parties for them, Ashworth said.

Rodrigue, a native of southwest Louisiana, began painting at age 9, when he had polio and his mother brought him paint-by-number kits. He began art lessons when he was 12, studying first with a local artist in New Iberia and then by correspondence with a school in Minneapolis.

The school's southern sales representative was surprised to learn that Rodrigue was 13, "their youngest student to date," Rodrigue's wife, Wendy Rodrigue, wrote in "The Other Side of the Painting," recently published by the University of Louisiana Press.

Rodrigue spent four semesters in the art department at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in 1962, then enrolled as an undergraduate at the Art Center College of Design Graduate School, which specialized in graphic illustration, advertising design and automotive design.

Although his professors sneered at pop art, Rodrigue was fascinated by it, and it added repetitive imagery to the hard edges of abstract art, Wendy Rodrigue wrote. "These qualities remain with George today, whether in his stylized oak or his iconic Blue Dog," she wrote.

He never graduated, but Louisiana-Lafayette gave him an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 2009.

The Blue Dog's origin was a book produced for the 1984 world's fair in New Orleans, with 40 paintings by Rodrigue and 40 stories by Chris Segura. Rodrigue spent three years on the paintings, which were finished long before the stories, Wendy Rodriguez wrote. He illustrated one story, about an evil dog that guards a house, with a painting of a Cajun werewolf, or loup-garou, based on a photograph of his late terrier-spaniel mix Tiffany.

In lieu of flowers, the family said Monday that memorial donations may be mailed to the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts in New Orleans or online via www.RodrigueFoundation.org .

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