For years, Jessie Hamilton cooked red beans and rice, hamburgers, and fried chicken with mashed potatoes for the members of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at Louisiana State University.
To thank her, they paid off her mortgage.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic last spring, Andrew Fusaiotti caught up with Hamilton, now 74. They first met at the Phi Gamma Delta house on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge in 1988, when he was a sophomore.
Hamilton told Fusaiotti that she was working two jobs to pay her mortgage, as a custodian at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport and as a cook at a country club. Restrictions were being imposed as Louisiana was emerging as an early epicenter of coronavirus cases, and Fusaiotti wanted to help.
Fusaiotti began reaching out to other members of the fraternity, also known as Fiji, to see if they'd be interested in contributing to a fundraiser for Hamilton, who had worked at the fraternity house for 14 years.
Among those eager to help was John Joubert, Fusaiotti's pledge brother and now a lawyer in the Baton Rouge area.
Joubert recalled that anytime he or another member of the fraternity missed a meal, Hamilton would make sure she saved a plate for them.
"She never, ever allowed any of us to go without a meal," Joubert said.
In April, 10 former Phi Gamma Delta members in matching Fiji T-shirts gathered outside Hamilton's house in Baker, a small city just north of Baton Rouge, to surprise her with some gifts. She walked outside to find friends, relatives and dozens of former Fiji members singing "Happy Birthday."
"Y'all almost grayer than I am," Hamilton said at the April 3 presentation, according to a video recorded by the Advocate of Baton Rouge, which also reported the fundraising effort.
The Fiji members told Hamilton that she was allowed to choose her presents in a game of "Let's Make a Deal." This edition of the game had one twist: Hamilton could choose all three doors.
"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," Fusaiotti 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."
Behind one door, the Fiji members presented "Jessie Hamilton Day" shirts, and a lunch of crawfish, chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, fried fish and oysters, catered by a local seafood restaurant.
Behind another door was an oversize check for $6,675.
Fusaiotti paused and, through tears, thanked his fraternity brothers for pitching in, adding that 90 men had made contributions.
And door No. 3? "We're going to pay your mortgage off," Joubert said. Hamilton, overcome, clasped a hand over her mouth.
"Jessie, you deserve it. You've earned it. And for all the stuff we put up, made you go through over those years, we probably ought to pay you a lot more than this."
Fusaiotti said he had gotten in touch with Hamilton's children before the celebration to find out how much she still owed on her house. The money meant Hamilton could finally retire.
Even with $51,665 added to her bank account, Hamilton had one more way of showing her character, Fusaiotti said: Rather than quit her jobs immediately, she put in her two weeks' notice.