Mardi Gras was last week, and although there were no parades down Nassau Street or beads strewn across the ground, there was still some orange and black amid all the purple and gold. In case you weren’t aware, the Orange Bubble extends across the globe and all the way down to Bourbon Street. Bill Hines ’78 was hailed as Rex, King of Carnival 2013 down in NOLA. Street got an exclusive chance to interview royalty.
Q: Is there a particular moment that you feel defines your time at Princeton?
A: Not one memory defines my time at Princeton. As an 18-year-old from New Orleans, Princeton changed my life. That sounds corny to say, but coming back to New Orleans and managing a law firm and being involved in different civic and philanthropic engagements ... a lot of that went back to my four years at Princeton. It transforms you. The motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service,” sticks with me, and I’m sure other Princeton grads as well.
Q: How would you describe Mardi Gras as an event and a tradition?
A: Mardi Gras is an international concept. They have celebrations in Rio, France, Italy and other European countries. It is a Catholic-based ritual. You’ve got this 40-day period of Lent coming up in between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That’s why the dates of Mardi Gras shift, because it depends on the date of Easter. This year is relatively early; the earliest would probably be Feb. 4 and the latest around March 8. The idea is a complete cultural hedonistic festival leading up to the Lenten season. New Orleans has everything from street parades and rustic ceremonies to high-end ceremonial events like being King of Carnival and the Rex Ball. The key about it now is there is something for all walks of life. Regardless of income level or region you are from, there is a strong opportunity for you to participate in Mardi Gras.
Q: How do you become King of Mardi Gras?
A: I know in general how it happens, but I’m not on the committee, so I can just tell you what I know. There is a Rex Committee, which was formed in 1872, that is responsible for choosing Rex, King of Carnival each year. They meet sometime in the fall and secretly select the next Rex. You must be a member of Rex to be chosen as King. Rex has around 800 members, who are all civically active. [Democratic strategist and political commentator] James Carville became a member of Rex after moving to New Orleans. One of the most fun pictures I have is of James Carville and me where I’m dressed up as the King and he’s dressed up as James Carville [laughter]. Rex is comprised of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, with the main focus being civic action and community engagement. Those are also key components to being chosen as Rex, which is recognition of substantial civic, philanthropic and business endeavors in the community.
Q: It sounds like philanthropic and civic work are critical components to being chosen as Rex. I know you have a lot of experience in these areas. What would you say are some of the most rewarding things you’ve done?
A: What I’ve tried to do over the last 15-20 years is to pick two or three things that are in different sectors. Economic development is something I have been involved in. In the late ’90s, I chaired MetroVision, which focused on economic development. I also co-chaired the effort to keep a professional football team in New Orleans and attract the Hornets, an NBA team, to the city. Right now, I’m currently chairman of an organization called Idea Village, which supports and focuses on entrepreneurship in the city. I’ve also chaired the Arts Council and Jazz Orchestra Board. But the most rewarding — not necessarily what you would call fun — experiences would be my work for Teach for America and United Way. I was chairman of Teach for America and United Way during Katrina. I am currently a member of the Teach for America Community Advisory Board. Those things are probably the most rewarding — I don’t think ‘fun’ is the proper term — but very rewarding. It is a different type of pleasure. When you weave them all together, it’s not a matter of getting thank-you’s or getting rewards. If you just like being active and doing this sort of thing, it is all enjoyable.
Q: You talked about Katrina and being a part of the New Orleans community during that time. What kind of an impact do you think Katrina had, and how has New Orleans continued moving forward after such a disaster?
A: I think Katrina and New Orleans are the latest example of a tipping point like Malcolm Gladwell writes about. Katrina was a horrible disaster, but it became a reset for New Orleans. New Orleans was addressing its problems so over a 20-year period, we might have gotten done what has been done in five to eight years because of Katrina. We addressed everything with a great sense of immediacy. There was such a massive sort of civic groundswell across races, classes — the whole community. Everyone just kind of got into it. We’ve had a huge influx of new people moving in since Katrina, particularly young people. Some are moving home, and others not from New Orleans are moving here. They are moving businesses here or starting their business here. Those things have helped New Orleans to tip, and I think it’s almost impossible for New Orleans to move backward now.
Q: Back to your time as royalty! Can you tell me more about the whole experience?
A: It is spectacular. There’s no question that riding on the King’s float though the city that you’ve grown up in with hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets and cheering, people from all walks of life, is an incredible experience. You see people you know and those who you don’t. Kindergarten and first grade teachers I hadn’t seen in 40 to 50 years came out. Basically, your whole life flashes in front of you. Then, you do a toast at Gallier Hall, the old city hall, and toast the mayor and the city. The Archbishop of New Orleans is there. Then in another toast you toast the Queen and your wife. It’s really the most memorable thing. You [don’t] get another moment like that in your life.
Q: Is there particular royal garb?
A: King wears the same outfits each year. On Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, Rex is taken on [a] tugboat with his entourage up the river. I got to take about 45 people, including some friends from Princeton. At the Spanish Plaza we disembarked. The mayor gave me a key to the city [and] we proclaimed the start of Mardi Gras. I wore a festive purple, green and gold ensemble for that. It was all gold, sequins and jewels for the parade. For the night, it was a very high-end gold lame costume with stones and jewels.
Q: How long are you King, and what does the role entail now? Are there any royal perks?
A: I am King for a year, like Miss America. But I’ve had my days. There is a charitable foundation run by Rex called Pro Bono and our motto is “Pro Bono Publico,” which means “for the public good.” The foundation was created after Katrina in 2006, and every year we give out $560,000 to Teach for America and charter schools; it all goes to public school education. I preside at the dinner to raise money in April. I will give up the throne on March 4. I get about an extra month as king since Mardi Gras is later next year!
Q: Could you describe the experience in one word?
A: There are too many words. The key is the parade and the ball. I guess I would go with “mind-boggling” or “whole life flashed before your eyes.” It was the memory of a lifetime — I’ve never had an experience like it, and I’ll actually say I’ll probably never have another one like it.