By Mark Ballard and Marsha Shuler / The Advocate
Former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, one of Louisiana’s most powerful political figures from 1980s until his retirement in 2007, died Saturday morning in Zachary, according to a longtime aide.
Odom developed breathing problems late Friday and was taken to Lane Regional Medical Center, said Randal Johnson, Odom’s close friend for more than 30 years. Odom died about 7:15 a.m., Johnson said. Odom was 78.
The arrangements will be handled by Charlet Funeral Home on High Street in Zachary, Johnson said.
Odom’s 28-year tenure as the Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry was marked with innovations and some controversy.
“He changed the way the commissioner of agriculture operated. Bob never missed a meeting anywhere. He was involved with all the different commodities,” said Louisiana Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson, who 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,” Anderson said.
“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.
“He was in every election. But 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 when he was a member of the Louisiana House.
Odom “was a Louisiana legend. He was Mr. Agriculture for a long, long time,” Thompson said. “He was a fighter. He never backed away from an issue because of the politics. Seldom did he lose a battle in the legislature.”
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 sugarcane, Odom built up the markets for chickens, 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 and an LSU baseball game in last few weeks, Thompson said. In fact, Odom had become something of a fixture at LSU baseball games after retirement.
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 friends with Odom since 1979. As deputy commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry, he was Odom’s chief aide 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 and wore a ring that signified his service. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.
Johnson said Odom didn’t feel death imminentFriday 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 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 CommissionerGil Dozier, who in 1980 was convicted of extortion and bribery and later served time in federal prison.
He was easily reelected 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 campaigning 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.”
“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.”
There were some failed agriculture ventures along the way. A southwest Louisiana cane syrup mill built with state workers’ sweat 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 a ethanol plant. The mill was sold to a company largely owned by a Columbian family but the firm fell behind on payments leaving the state in a bind because it borrowed money to build the mill and backed bank loans.
Another Odom pet project — a failed cypress mill in Tangipahoa Parish — sold for parts and turned into a hurricane staging area for the Louisiana National Guard.
Odom had his own legal fights when he was indicted in August 2002 on 21 counts, including extortion, money laundering and bribery. 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 from the start.
Odom vowed to clear his name and sought a speedy trial. 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. State District Judge Don Johnson lambasted then-District Attorney Doug Moreau for “arrogance” and a “lack of courage to formally end what he officially started.”