Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


October 26, 1933 – August 30, 2020

Elizabeth “Beth” Nell Dubus Michel Baldridge

Elizabeth “Beth” Nell Dubus Michel Baldridge, 86, died August 30 in Baton Rouge. A celebrated author, teacher, community activist and gardener, Beth was well known for founding the BR Arts Council and launching the first of the annual Arts Festival, Fest For All, in Baton Rouge. She was awarded the Volunteer Activist Award by the Emerge Center in 1978 for her work to make the arts a central part of the Baton Rouge community.

Born in 1933 in Lake Charles to Katherine Bertha Burke and Andre Jules Dubus, her siblings are Andre Jules Dubus, II (deceased), an award winning author of short stories and novellas, and Baton Rouge resident Kathryn Dubus. Her prominent Burke and Dubus families settled in Louisiana in the 18th century. Walter Burke, her grandfather, was a respected and powerful state senator asked to run against Huey Long for governor. His legacy is honored by Burke-Hawthorne Hall at the University of Lafayette. The Burke family includes published authors in every generation along with theatrical artists such as Beth’s Burke grandmother, Bertha Perry Burke, who founded the New Iberia Little Theatre and directed productions there.

Writing as Elizabeth Nell Dubus, Beth was an acclaimed novelist – among her work is a well-loved trilogy weaving stories of the Cajun culture published in the US and UK with translations published in France. An award winning playwright, her plays were published and produced around the US, including at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre, and in New Jersey and Alaska, among other locations.

A respected journalist, Beth wrote a popular weekly column, “Conversations Over Coffee”, in the Baton Rouge Enterprise for many years along with regular writing assignments for the State Times-Morning Advocate and John Maginnis’ feisty alternative newspaper Gris Gris.  She shared her love of writing as a beloved teacher in the English departments of LSU, the University of Lafayette and Southern University and co-created and directed a vibrant drama program at Angola State Prison.

Beth’s pride and joy was her garden. At each new house she would spend months with her landscaper and dear friend, Emile Clark, visualizing a plan which Emile would execute with love and mastery. Together, they created oases of flowers, trees, streams, ponds and always feeders and baths for the birds and butterflies.

Beth loved to cook and to entertain, throwing large parties effortlessly with great flair. A bonne vivante, she presided over celebrated dinner parties regaling all with colorful stories of Louisiana people and customs. Her generosity and hostess skills were boundless – entertaining young children at her famous cookie bakes with the same delight and interest as she showed their parents at her many dinners and luncheons. Her joie de vivre was unparalleled.

Devoted to the Catholic faith from her baptism, and through her school days at Mount Carmel, she continued that commitment by enrolling all five daughters at St Joseph’s Academy where the Michel family was an active patron for many decades.

Beth adored her grandsons, Sebastian, Walter, Lucien, Noah and Taylor. She always delighted in hearing of their adventures and was eager to support their endeavors – from mountain biking to skiing to cars. She treasured her visits with them and delighted in telling all about their accomplishments and achievements.

Beth was predeceased by her second husband, Charles Dixon (Dick) Baldridge and Melvin Maurice Michel, the father of their five daughters – Elizabeth Michel, Pamela Michel Chavez (Victor), Maggi Michel, Aimée Michel Lawson (John) and DeLauné Michel Fried (Dan). Survivors include Anne Baldridge Salafia (Jim), Charles Wilson Baldridge (Betty) Robert Andreas Baldridge (Nancy), Sebastian Louis Michel Lawson, Walter Burke Fried, Lucien Dubus Fried, Noah Robert Baldridge, Taylor Wills Baldridge, Colin Baldridge and Mallory Baldridge.

Those who knew and loved Beth will recognize her in her own words:

I grew up in a family whose ancestors were as much a part of daily life as morning coffee, where stories were told to instruct, inspire, educate and entertain, in the kind of small town that needs no police force–though it had one–because of the cadre of little old ladies whose sharp ears and eyes and sharper tongues made them as formidable as the F.B.I.

That small town was a microcosm of civilization, an extension of French New Orleans, with ballroom dancing classes, afternoon teas where young girls learned manners, and debuts at a ball on Mardi Gras night, a rite of passage that signaled that a girl was ready to be a well-mannered, civilized adult guest at any event.

My family were all great readers–my father, sent to Vanderbilt at age 14, had Ransom Crowe and Allen Tate as English teachers. My maternal grandfather’s private library served the town until the founding of New Iberia Library in 1947.

Taught by Catholic nuns whose independent minds encouraged us to become individuals, not just members of a group, and blessed with a father who loved intelligent women, I grew up without knowing that women weren’t equal to men. (The fact that, in a French culture, women have a great deal of power didn’t hurt, either.) The three Dubus aunts were women of energy, great courage, and the ability to laugh in all but the most tragic circumstances. My Aunt Roberta, a true grande dame, wrote for local newspapers and was furious that her byline read “Robert” because no respectable woman’s name appeared in the newspaper except at her birth, marriage, and death.

Looking back, I see that in many ways I grew up in a sort of Camelot, an especially kind Camelot where generosity of spirit and a belief in the dignity of every human being prevailed. Racism had no place in my family, and anyone guilty of a racist remark learned very quickly just how wrong that was.

The one bad thing about growing up like this was learning, when I left Lafayette, how rare a place it truly is. While in many ways, Thomas Wolfe’s book title–YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN–is true; for me, it is only by going home, at least in my mind and heart, that I see the world in a way that helps me write about it.

The Memorial Mass is Tuesday September 8 at 1030 am at Christ the King Chapel.  Click here for information regarding RSVP for attendance or ZOOM stream information.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to:

Spoken Interludes Writing Program For At Risk Children
The National Park Foundation
Louisiana Wildlife Federation
World Wildlife Fund
National Parks Conservation
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Southern Law Poverty Center