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 their mortgage.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic last spring, Andrew Fusaiotti caught up with Ms. Hamilton, now 74. They first met at the Phi Gamma Delta house on the L.S.U. campus in Baton Rouge, La., in 1988, when he was a sophomore.
Ms. Hamilton told Mr. 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 Mr. Fusaiotti wanted to help.
Mr. 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 fund-raiser for Ms. Hamilton, who had worked at the fraternity house for 14 years.
“As soon as she said she was working two jobs, I knew I was going to help her no matter what,” said Mr. Fusaiotti, who was a student at L.S.U. and a Fiji member in the late 1980s. “She really is an amazing person.”
Among those eager to help was John Joubert, Mr. Fusaiotti’s pledge brother, who is now a lawyer in the Baton Rouge area.
Mr. Joubert recalled that anytime he or another member of the fraternity missed a meal, Ms. Hamilton would make sure she saved a plate for them.
“She never, ever allowed any of us to go without a meal,” Mr. Joubert said. “I just can’t explain enough to you how wonderful of a human being she is. She never cared about herself. She never put herself out there.”
Earlier this month, 10 former Phi Gamma Delta members in matching Fiji T-shirts gathered outside Ms. Hamilton’s house in Baker, La., 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,” Ms. Hamilton said at the presentation on April 3, according to a video recorded by The Advocate of Baton Rouge, which also reported the fund-raising effort.
The Fiji members told Ms. 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: Ms. 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,” Mr. 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.
Mr. Fusaiotti paused and, through tears, thanked his fraternity brothers for pitching in, adding that 90 men had made contributions.
Then Mr. Joubert shared a story Ms. Hamilton once told him about her house and what it meant to her.
“Part of the problem with the house is that it comes with bills, all kinds of stuff,” Mr. Joubert said.
“Let’s see what we got,” he added, revealing a second oversize check, for $45,000. Ms. Hamilton, overcome, clasped a hand over her mouth.
“We’re going to pay your mortgage off,” Mr. Joubert said. “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.”
Mr. Fusaiotti said he had gotten in touch with Ms. Hamilton’s children before the celebration to find out how much she still owed on her house. The money meant Ms. Hamilton could finally retire.
“This has been a blessing to me,” Ms. Hamilton, who could not be reached, told The Advocate. “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.”
Mr. Fusaiotti drove in for the celebration from Mobile, Ala., where he owns a car dealership. He said he was so nervous that he hardly slept for a week leading up to it. The night before, he said, he wrote about a dozen different speeches and cried as he read all of them.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it when I got there. I was white as a ghost,” Mr. Fusaiotti said. “When you get 90 guys that are rallying around you, knowing how important it was for them, it made me nervous. I didn’t want to disappoint.”
Once he reunited with his brothers and saw Ms. Hamilton, Mr. Fusaiotti said, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“It was a good old Louisiana front-yard Cajun barbecue,” he said, adding that his son and his son’s girlfriend also drove in to celebrate Ms. Hamilton.
Mr. Fusaiotti, an avid New Orleans Saints fan, recalled watching the team win Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 as one of the best moments of his life, along with getting married and having children. Celebrating Ms. Hamilton, he said, now ranks with those moments as among the most memorable for him.
“When you do something for somebody that doesn’t expect it, something nice for somebody,” he said, “you really can’t have much better feeling.”
Even with $51,765 added to her bank account, Ms. Hamilton had one more way of showing her character, Mr. Fusaiotti said: Rather than quit her jobs immediately, she put in her two weeks’ notice.