Walter Joseph Gaudin loved to say "if heaven's any better than this (Cat Island), I can't wait to get there."
The New Orleans native found out Sunday when he died after a brief fight with lung cancer. He was 67.
Lovingly nicknamed the "Mayor of Cat Island," Gaudin was a caretaker on the island for more than 18 years. It was his happy place, his paradise.
It was during that time that he met and bonded with Dr. Don Gaddy. Gaudin helped rebuild Gaddy's home after Hurricane Katrina and then remained there as a caretaker who could do nearly anything and everything. After being diagnosed with cancer six weeks ago, Gaddy said, Gaudin moved in with him on the mainland so the caretaker could be taken care of.
Gaddy said Gaudin fully embodied his nickname.
"It's not an easy life living on an island," Gaddy told the Sun Herald on Wednesday. "He was out there alone and by himself a lot but he still enjoyed it.
"It takes a special personality to do that, but he loved being out there and being able to take care of himself under those circumstances."
Anytime people would visit the island, he said, Gaudin was more than hospitable.
"He'd get the house ready for them, cook, clean fish, anything," he said.
Most folks likely know Gaudin from his "mayoral duties," but there was much more to the New Orleans native and Warren Easton High School grad than just the island life.
Gaudin liked to say life wasn't always sunny and talked about the LSU Tigers, fishing and exploring the barrier islands.
"Walter was not ashamed to say he was an alcoholic for a good portion of his life and went through tough times because of that," Gaddy said.
About 23 years ago when Gaudin became sober — "He often said you're never fully 'recovered,' just 'recovering,' " Gaddy recalled — he committed his life to helping others with the same problems.
"He told me numerous times 'I should have died back then but God needed me to stick around to try and help others,' " Gaddy said.
Gaudin traveled the Coast to help people who were at their lowest moments, even attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and running a hotline.
"If they needed help, Walter would go take care of them. That's just the kind of person he was," Gaddy said. "He didn't have much money but what he had he was willing to give to others to help them — and if he didn't have it, he'd get it."
Gaudin's brothers, Donald and David, said they were proud of how their brother turned his life around while finding a unique calling.
"He was a good brother," Donald said. "He had a good, happy life and made a lot of friends. I was amazed at how many friends he had and how they loved and treated him."
David said he thinks being on the island, living a fisherman's life, was good for Walter's sobriety.
"It really helped him," he said.
Clyde the egret
Gaudin had a way with animals. He made friends with whatever wildlife inhabited Cat Island — especially raccoons and an egret named Clyde.
"That bird would come up to him and only him," Gaddy said. "Clyde would come flying out of the trees and eat right out of his hand."
It should come as no surprise that a man who thought of Cat Island as paradise would want the island to be his final resting place. Gaudin requested to have his ashes spread on Cat Island near where his shepherd dogs are buried.
"He loved those dogs," Gaddy said. "They were very special to him"
Gaddy said they will have a private ceremony on Cat Island to celebrate Gaudin's life in a couple of weeks.
As news of Gaudin's death spread, messages and stories began to pour in, some from complete strangers. Gaddy said he plans to frame them on the island as another reminder for all Gaudin did for the citizens of Cat Island. Below are some of the memories.
- "Walter Gaudin was a loyal, dependable sweet friend and our Cat Island guardian. He was a gentleman and it was a pleasure to be in his presence. We have many great memories of our times with Walter, but I often think of a couple of examples of his character. Many years ago he worked for a buddy of mine for years and never missed a single day of work! He was also involved in a Christian group in recent years outside of Cat Island. I understand that he and some of his collaborators would occasionally go and literally save others who were having personal issues. They would get that person out of the gutter. Batman or Cat Man, obviously he was a hero to some. Everything seem to be a joy to Walter and it was certainly a joy having him around. He will be missed."
"I am thankful for having known Walter. While he had little patience for those he felt were irresponsible, he was always willing to go out of his way to help others. Walter was a good man and I will miss him. May he rest in peace."
"Living on the island, Walter wasn’t able to attend church regularly, but he lived his life doing God’s work helping others, and taking good care of the place he thought of as heaven on earth. Walter was proud to be a recovering alcoholic who hadn’t had a drink in 20-years. He helped so many people in those 20 years and was always on-call for AA, answering his phone to help people he had never met. He touched so many lives along the way, and will be sadly missed by everyone, including Clyde, his pet blue heron."
"I first met Walter when he was laying tile in our house 20 years ago. Since that time, I came to know him quite well. He was a good man who tried hard to live a good life and do the right thing. The world will miss him and so will I."
Anyone interested in submitting memories of Gaudin should email Gaddy at firstname.lastname@example.org.