Three decades after Jessie Hamilton worked as a cook at a Louisiana State University fraternity house, the members have not forgotten her kindness orher cooking — specifically her fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
When they found out that their beloved cook was still working two jobs at age 74 to pay off her mortgage, they decided it was their turn to give back to her.
The brothers of Phi Gamma Delta house, many of them now in their 50s, pitched in to surprise her on April 3 with "Jessie Hamilton Day" in Baton Rouge, leaving her stunned as they handed her a $45,000 check for the remainder of the mortgage on the home she bought in 2006.
“This has been a blessing to me,” Hamilton told The Advocate of Baton Rouge, which captured the scene on video. “I have been worrying about how I was going to pay my house off. I am grateful for what God has done and has led them to do for me.”
Andrew Fusaiotti attended LSU as a member of the fraternity informally known as Fiji in the late 1980s and stayed in touch with Hamilton over the years after graduating. When he learned she was working as a cook at a country club and a custodian at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport to pay her bills in her 70s, he rallied his old fraternity brothers to help her out.
"It was friends helping a friend," Fusaiotti told TODAY Food. "It's the greatest feeling in the world when you do something for somebody who's not expecting it."
The Fiji members had special T-shirts made for the day, which was just ahead of Hamilton's 74th birthday. They played a "Let's Make a Deal"-style game with her, except all of the doors were winning ones in this version.
"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 says in the video as he gets choked up. "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 was T-shirts with "Jessie Hamilton Day" on them as well as a catered lunch from a local seafood restaurant. The next door had an oversize check for $6,675 behind it, followed by the big $45,000 check to complete the surprise.
Hamilton, who worked at the Fiji house from 1982-96, was 60 when she purchased her first home in 2006 by taking out a 30-year mortgage.
Fusaiotti noted that 90 fraternity brothers contributed to the gift as fellow fraternity member John Joubert presented her with it.
"We’re going to pay your mortgage off," Joubert says in the video. "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 remembered back to how Hamilton would wake up at 4 a.m. and leave for work at the fraternity house by 5 a.m. while raising three children as well. She would always make sure the fraternity brothers had something to eat, and often was there as a supportive presence during difficult times.
"She would be working all week in that hot kitchen, but she was just always happy and fun to be around," Fusaiotti said. "She's got the biggest smile, and she's just the hardest-working person."
Hamilton now plans on retiring thanks to the $51,675 and using some of it to take a trip to Hawaii at some point in the future. The fraternity brothers are grateful they could give back to someone who gave them so much all those years ago.
"I haven't even been able to watch the video because it's just so emotional for me," Fusaiotti said. "To know what she's been through and who she is and be able to lift his off her back is the best feeling you could ever have."