Jessie Hamilton worked as a cook at a fraternity house at Louisiana State University for 14 years.
While she was in constant motion preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for the members of Phi Gamma Delta, commonly called Fiji, she was widely known to lend an ear when one of the young men needed her advice or care.
“She was truly like a mother to us,” said Andrew Fusaiotti, 52, a Fiji fraternity brother who attended LSU in the late 1980s. “She treated us like we were her own kids. She was always looking out for us.”
More than 30 years later, he and his fraternity brothers returned the favor.
On April 3, just before her 74th birthday, a dozen Fiji members and their families surprised Hamilton with an outdoor celebration at her home in Baton Rouge and presented her with a gift of $51,765.
Nearly 100 Fiji brothers contributed money to cover the outstanding balance of Hamilton’s mortgage — and then some — so she could retire. Hamilton was speechless.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
After working at least two jobs since she was 14, she said, she’s long been ready for retirement.
“I was a sharecropper’s daughter, so we didn’t have much,” said Hamilton. “At one time, I was working four jobs.” As a single mother of three, “there were times when I didn’t have enough money to put food on the table,” she said.
Hamilton started working at the fraternity house in 1982. She would wake up about 4 a.m. each day to catch the 5 a.m. bus to campus. She prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for as many as 100 fraternity brothers at a time.
Not only did Hamilton cook the meals, she said, “I also made sure everybody ate.”
Whenever class schedules or other commitments conflicted with mealtimes, “she’d make a late plate and leave it for me and a bunch of the guys,” Fusaiotti said.
“I enjoyed doing it,” Hamilton said. “They loved my cooking.”
She mostly made comfort food: fried chicken, red beans and smoked sausage, carrot cake and peach cobbler. But what Hamilton enjoyed far more than feeding the fraternity brothers, she said, was supporting them.
From relationship challenges to exam stress, “I was always there to talk things through with them,” she said. “They’d come in the kitchen and sit on top of the counter and tell me their problems.”
Johnny Joubert, 51, a Fiji member who graduated from LSU in 1993, recalls regularly doing just that.
“She was always asking how everyone else was and never said anything about herself,” he said. “From Day One, she had this aura about her that drew everybody to her. She always took care of us.”
After Hamilton left the fraternity house in 1996, she continued to work several jobs, including as a cleaner at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport and a cook at a country club. She’s been juggling both jobs ever since.
“I had to do what I had to do,” Hamilton said.
She was eager to purchase a home to call her own, and she finally did in 2006. To afford the house, though, she took out a 30-year mortgage, knowing she would need to work multiple jobs for the rest of her life to pay it off.
Over the years, Hamilton stayed in touch with several of the fraternity brothers, including Joubert, a lawyer in Baton Rouge, and Fusaiotti, who owns a car dealership in Mobile, Ala.
At the start of the pandemic, Fusaiotti called Hamilton to check in on her. “That’s when she told me she was still working two jobs,” he said. “I asked her why, and she said she couldn’t afford to retire.”
He was immediately determined to help her.
First, Fusaiotti contacted Hamilton’s children to find out exactly how much money was needed to pay off her mortgage. It was more than he thought: $45,000.
Knowing Hamilton’s special bond with so many of the Fiji brothers, Fusaiotti decided to start a fundraiser. With Joubert’s help, he contacted fraternity brothers across the country, requesting donations of any amount to put toward Hamilton’s mortgage.
It was difficult to ask people for money during the pandemic, he said, but “I was going to make it happen no matter what.”
Fusaiotti and Joubert spent the last several months fundraising and planning a surprise event, just ahead of Hamilton’s 74th birthday. They called the celebration “Jessie Hamilton Day.”
The Fiji frat members were “so excited” about it, Fusaiotti said, adding that the average contribution was $560 and that 91 brothers donated.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a small group of Fiji members and their families — most of whom are vaccinated, including all adults — stood in the driveway of Hamilton’s home, ready for the surprise. Local news was there to capture the moment.
Hamilton’s three children led her outside as the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” Tears immediately streamed down her face.
“I hadn’t seen many of them in 30 years,” Hamilton said.
She sat down as Fusaiotti shared a few words.
“You’re the only one that I know in this world that could walk into that hot kitchen, working for minimum wage, with a smile on your face every single day for 14 years,” he said. “We’re here to thank you for that, because we love you, respect you, and we know what you’ve been through to get this house and put food on your table.”
“You’ve done everything in your life the right way,” Fusaiotti added.
To reveal the gift to Hamilton, they played a game of “Let’s Make a Deal.” But rather than choosing only one door, she was allowed to pick all three.
Behind the first door was personalized “Jessie Hamilton Day” clothing and a catered lunch, while the remaining two doors had giant checks, one for $6,675 to spend on herself, and another for $45,000 to cover her mortgage.
“If I hadn’t been sitting, I would have fell down,” Hamilton said. “I was hollering and crying.”
It was an equally emotional experience for the fraternity brothers.
“To be able to honor Jessie and give her something that would change her life, I don’t think I could ever fully describe how it made us all feel,” Joubert said.
The best part, he added, was that many of the men were able to share the moment with their children.
“For us to show our kids what the true meaning of success is — that it’s not about fancy cars and boats and vacation homes — was incredibly special,” said Fusaiotti, who has two children. “Success is about setting a good example, doing things for others and bringing people closer together. Jessie does all of those things for her family, friends, community and co-workers.”
At the end of the event, he turned to Hamilton and said, “You were already successful before we showed up today.”
Hamilton’s children were all deeply moved.
“My mom has always been a person who cares about other people. She would give you the shirt off her back and the socks and shoes off her feet,” said Hamilton’s daughter, Yonetta Tircuit, 55. “Now she can actually slow down and take care of herself.”
That’s exactly what Hamilton intends to do. Her house has officially been paid off in full, and she’s given notice at both her jobs.
“I’m going to make sure that I spend the money wisely,” Hamilton said, adding that she hopes to finally take a vacation once it’s safe to travel.
She also plans to use her newfound free time to see the Fiji brothers more often.
“They were my kids. They still are,” Hamilton said. “They used to tell me they loved me, and now, they’ve proved it.”