By Mike Mooneyham

Sept. 11, 2005

First of two parts

When former President George Bush asked for help, “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd answered the call.

The ex-pro football and wrestling star joined Bush and his wife, Barbara, last week in Houston as they visited Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the Astrodome and the nearby Reliant Center.

“Everywhere I go I do my job, and that’s to spread the word of the Lord,” says Ladd, a lay pastor and Louisiana resident who is helping in efforts to minister to Katrina’s survivors.

“When a former president calls you and tells you he wants you to walk with him, I didn’t have any choice except to say, ‘Yes sir, Mr. President.’ Simple as that. It wasn’t too much left for me to say.”

Actually, there was no other choice, since Ladd sees it as his mission to minister to those in need.

Ladd and Bush led prayer sessions as disheveled evacuees scattered on the concrete floor and milled about the concourses and seats of the building, with medics performing triage on what used to be a baseball field. They listened to stories of destroyed lives and property.

Ernie Ladd

Ernie Ladd

“Their spirits were high considering where they had come from. The people are very appreciative of what the president has done. Houston has opened its arms and given them clean, good facilities. It’s like a new life.”

Ladd has known the Bush family for 40 years and has taken an active role in their campaigns. He met the current president more than four decades ago at a mentoring program in Houston for underprivileged kids that was chaired by the elder Bush. Their families have been close friends ever since.

“They’re just a great family to know. And nobody’s sweeter than Barbara. Don’t let anyone tell you that George Bush Sr. is 80 years old. That man is the energizer bunny. I’ve got bad knees, and I had to roll around in a wheelchair for a while. He and Barbara were walking all over the place. I told his son that he needed to talk to his daddy, because his daddy was running all over the place.”

Ladd, 66, and the Bushes were among a contingent that included former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bishop T.D. Jakes and talk show diva Oprah Winfrey. While Jackson slammed the Bush administration for not responding quickly enough to the disaster, Ladd defended the commander-in-chief as well as embattled New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin.

“I don’t think the mayor of New Orleans could have warned the people any better than he warned them,” says Ladd. “He warned everybody. Some people stayed behind. Once we make a mistake and don’t take heed, then we’re ready to point our finger when the tragedy strikes us.”

Ladd attributed much of the criticism to outside influences.

“A lot of outsiders have come in and said various negative things, but come to find out it wasn’t like what they were saying. People were warned to get out, but they thought it would be like it’s always been in the past. The mayor had vehicles and buses come out to pick people up. They wouldn’t get in. People should have heeded the warning.”

Ladd, though, says he understood the shock, disillusionment and anger in the wake of the disaster.

“You’re always going to have that. That happens when a tragedy like this occurs. I’m not here to be against the people. But I’m also not against the mayor. The mayor did one fantastic job in my opinion. He went after the president about it, and the president came back and made a commitment to the city of New Orleans. Pick another time to point fingers. Fix the problem now.”

Ladd says that while the thousands of evacuees at the world’s first domed stadium are getting the food, clothing and shelter they need, the much bigger challenge will be helping the residents forced out of New Orleans find jobs and housing for months to come.

Many who were left homeless by the storm eventually will return to the ravaged city, he says, because “they love the lifestyle of New Orleans.” “You’re going to have some who are not going to move back, but most of them will move back and rebuild.”

Ladd, a longtime resident of Franklin, La., and a member of that state’s Sports Hall of Fame, was about 100 miles from the affected areas and suffered no ill effects from the storm. He says he planned to visit New Orleans later in the week.

Ladd, who is heavily involved in community service projects and a Christian ministry that travels to prisons and provides services to inmates, saw many hardship cases in Houston. He was inspired, though, by the indomitable spirit of those he talked to.

“It was some kind of experience. The ones who knew me responded well, and the ones who found out later on who I was also responded well. When I offered to pray, they were very receptive to prayer. They have endured a great deal, but they will persevere. We were very thankful.” He gave them one special piece of advice.

“Don’t put trust in man. Put trust in God. Most of the people I spoke to had some kind of faith, so that was enlightening. They realize there is a God.”