Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - When the captain and members of the Rex executive committee summoned Bill Hines to a meeting last November to break the news that he would be this year’s King of Carnival, they teased the always loquacious lawyer by presenting him with purple, green and gold Duck Tape along with a glass of champagne.
It was presumably a tool they hoped would help him keep his mouth shut and, by tradition, his secret intact.
On Tuesday, the tape comes off, as Hines celebrates the thrill of a lifetime by reigning as King of Carnival.
Hines’ queen, equally elated by her selection, is Nina O’Brien Sloss, a native New Orleanian and international affairs major at the University of Georgia at Athens.
“It’s the greatest honor of my life,” Hines, a managing partner at the Jones Walker law firm, said during a recent interview at his home.
His queen, who learned of her honor while returning home during last year’s spring break, agreed that the news came as a great honor but a surprise.
“It’s pretty surreal. I was really shocked when I found out but it’s just been getting better and better every minute. Every time I see my dress it looks more beautiful than it did the last time.”
She explained that her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lynes “Poco” Sloss, broke the news to her by calling on Carnivals past – covering the couch with Rex memorabilia and photos of her grandmother (Queen of Carnival 1952), aunt (Queen of Carnival 1979) and great-grandfather (Rex 1959).
Hines joked that his selection this year is an improvement on his standing during last year’s parade.
“I was on the last float in Rex last year and I actually complained about being on the last float and I guess this year they moved me up to the first float.”
Still, he admitted that his selection as the King of Carnival surprised even him, since the monarchs are usually about 10 years older than Hines, who is 56.
But it’s clear Hines fits the bill when it comes to civic and business leadership, having spent most of his adult life in his hometown except for college at Princeton University and law school at the University of Virginia. He came back to New Orleans in 1982 and since then has brought a whirlwind of energy to every cause he has been involved in.
The list of civic, non-profit and charitable groups he has served over the years fills several pages. Highlights include service to the United Way, WYES-TV, Greater New Orleans Inc., MetroVision, the Council for a Better Louisiana, Teach for America, the National World War II Museum, Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, Louisiana State Museum Foundation and Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, just to name a few of many. Current highlights include his tenure as a commissioner of the Downtown Development District, as well as chairman of the board of Idea Village and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Hines, a self-admitted sports fan, is perhaps best known as a leader of the team that brought the New Orleans Hornets to town from Charlotte in 2002.
He reminded an interviewer that the Hornets were actually the second NBA franchise that New Orleans leaders tried to woo to the city – making a first attempt at the Vancouver Grizzlies, which landed in Memphis instead.
“The message from that is once you fail, look at why you failed, fix it and you have a chance to succeed,” he said.
Hines was also involved in the recent effort to keep the team in local hands, with the sale to Saints Owner Tom Benson, and he says it is satisfying to now sit in the New Orleans Arena as a fan, watching the team that he and others worked hard to keep here.
His dabbling in the world of sports produced more than one unlikely alliance – with New Orleans sports broadcasting icon Buddy Diliberto. He laughs when he recalls the line Buddy D. used about him on his WWL Radio show during the Hornets negotiations.
“He’d say, ‘That Bill Hines is a nice guy but I hope he’s not all hat and no cattle.’ I’m a competitive guy and I didn’t like hearing that,” Hines joked. The two became friends and celebrated the news that the team would come here a few weeks later. Hines even had the honor of guest hosting Diliberto’s radio show several times.
Hines says he sees the city’s sports franchises as an important tool in economic development, just as he does Mardi Gras and other cornerstones of the city’s culture.
“I really like all aspects of New Orleans – whether it’s economic development, visual arts, performing arts, sports, social services. I guess my theory is I like life and New Orleans offers to me an opportunity to enjoy all aspects of life and that’s why I think it’s the best place to live in the United States.”
His involvement with Rex includes serving as chairman of the organization’s creative committee, which he says oversees the different artistic aspects of the parade and ball.
As someone with an artistic eye, whose job has included those special touches Rex is known for, Hines is proud of the design of his ducal decoration, or badge worn by Rex members. Following a tradition of matching the ducal to that year’s theme, the pin features a lion’s head, complete with red jeweled eyes – fitting since this year’s Rex theme is “All Creatures Great and Small.” The design recreates the image seen on gauntlets, or metal gloves, worn by Rex 1886. The gauntlets are on display in the Mardi Gras collection at the Presbytere.
Hines complimented his fellow Rex members who have helped him keep the secret of his reign and attend to the countless details that come with preparations for such an honor.
“The Rex Organization runs like a machine,” he said. But he joked that, as a working professional, he has had to juggle costume fittings or royal appointments with the rigors of his daily routine.
“I’m not retired or semi-retired so I’ve had to fit all this in around my job, which has posed some challenges, frankly, on occasion,” he said. “I’ve had to walk out of a building after a fitting and run into someone I know and sort of clam up because I think they’re going to guess the secret.”
Hines has personal Carnival memories of attending parades as a child, and even participating in school parades while at Newman. His family, including his wife, two daughters and a son, has been involved in Carnival in recent years. His daughter reigned as queen of Comus in 2009. His wife was queen of the Mystic Club ball last year. His son, former state Rep. William Walker Hines, was selected as a page in his childhood and then served as a duke in 2006 – a pivotal year in Carnival history, as the first celebration after Hurricane Katrina.
Hines says he feels the tragedy of Katrina was a turning point for Carnival, as it was for so many aspects of New Orleans life.
“I was quoted in the New York Times saying that to me, not having Mardi Gras in 2006 was like not having Broadway after Sept. 11 in New York. No one questioned whether Broadway should reopen. It’s a major part of our culture.”
He says he will use his reign on Tuesday to help inspire a younger generation of new New Orleanians, part of the recent influx of young talent and entrepreneurs.
He says one of them is his queen, Nina O’Brien Sloss, who was born in the city but will likely spend time after graduation away from home in the business world.
“She’s a great example. She may work in New York for a year or two but I hope she comes home and is part of the younger generation regenerating New Orleans, which will only make the city more successful.”
Sloss, a Newman graduate, is a junior at the University of Georgia and has studied abroad in Europe. She has interned with a Los Angeles film and video production company, as well as famed dress designer Vera Wang. Her future goals include working on Capitol Hill, hoping to earn an internship in a congressional office, and possibly attending graduate school or law school and pursuing a career in politics or international diplomacy.
Her hobbies include playing tennis, traveling and spending time outdoors with friends and family. She is a member of Phi Mu sorority and has played on the championship intramural volleyball team.
The queen, like her grandmother and great-grandmother, pronounces her name as though it rhymed with Carolina and not the more familiar pronunciation. She admits it is a quirk but is proud to continue the family tradition.
Sloss’ childhood memories of Carnival include costuming for every Mardi Gras (masking one year as Madonna is a personal favorite), and catching beads from her father, a lieutenant riding on horseback in Rex.
She remembers watching the Rex ball and Meeting of the Courts of Rex and Comus on WYES-TV as a young girl and is touched that this year she will be the young girl on the throne.
“As a kid, it seemed like such a faraway fairy tale, I never thought it would actually be me. It’s been amazing.”
She has family memories to draw on during her reign, with an aunt, Deborah Hopkins Huger, her mother’s sister, who reigned as queen in 1979, the year the New Orleans Police strike cancelled the Rex parade but not the ball.
During an interview, she proudly wore the queen’s pin from her grandmother’s reign. Eugenie Penick Jones, who died just last year, was Queen of Carnival in 1952. That was the first year after the Korean War curtailed Carnival activities and replaced 1951’s Rex and his queen with honored members of the armed forces in the so-called Krewe of Patria.
Sloss’ great-grandfather, Joseph Merrick Jones, was Rex in 1959. Her mother reigned as a Rex maid in 1978. Other cousins have been Rex pages and dukes. Her brother was a page in 2001 and a duke in 2011.
She says keeping her honor a secret, as is tradition, has been difficult.
“I really wanted to tell my best friends but surprisingly I’ve kept it to myself pretty well which is kind of a surprise since I’m sort of a blabber mouth,” she joked.
She said the fact that she was studying abroad during the past semester made the preparations for her reign, including fittings and royal appointments, even more challenging.
While the parade and ball will be highlights, she said she is most looking forward to the end of the night and the Queens’ Supper at which the Queen of Carnival shares the billing with the Comus queen.
As for Fat Tuesday, despite concerns about the weather, Sloss said she is looking forward to a spectacular day.
“I just hope every New Orleanian is having as much fun as I know I will be with Rex,” she said.