Patriarch touched lives with his love for song and laughter
Patriarch of a large, culturally rich Cajun family; cultural ambassador to France representing Cajun culture; and devoted family man who enriched their lives with song. Died at 88 on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015.
Eugene “Papa Gene” Anthony Dusenbery was more than the patriarch of a large Cajun family world-renowned for its melodious singing, but also a living representation of Cajun culture.
Eugene was born on June 13, during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to Teles and Annie Dusenbery in Houma. He attended elementary school until eighth grade, when he left school to help put food on the table for his family
His father owned a taxi service.
“That was a rough time,” said daughter Veronica Trahan. “He wasn’t old enough to drive, so they used him as a runner.”
It was the time when the Greyhound bus station was in Downtown Houma. Taxi drivers were not allowed to drive up to the station or go inside to drum up business, Veronica said. So, Teles sent Eugene inside to coax arriving passengers to take a ride with them.
After a couple of years, Eugene was able to drive a taxi himself, and by that time his father had expanded to three cars.
But that was not his destiny
Through working for his father, he saved for a guitar.
“He paid $5 and it only had three strings,” Veronica said. “But he fixed it up and he began playing.”
That shoddy guitar would lead Eugene to a musical legacy that transcended generations and international boundaries.
In his later teen years, he played in a country band called Southern Playboys. Eugene and his band had the honor of playing at Hank Williams’ wedding to Audrey Sheppard in New Orleans.
“He often joked, ‘Shake the hand that shook the hand of Hank Williams!”‘ said famed South Louisiana Cajun musician Waylon Thibodeaux. “‘I’ve never washed this hand!’ [he’d say.]”
Eugene had a great sense of humor. He loved nothing more than to make people smile and laugh. It was part of his entertainer’s spirit.
In 1946, Eugene joined the Army He served in Korea during the American occupation leading up to the war. He was a liaison for the United Service Organizations, better known as the USO, helping to lift soldiers’ spirits, supplying them with footballs and playing cards. It was a perfect job for him and he was very proud of his service.
He came home a year later and picked up playing music again. It was while playing at a dance hall that he met the love of his life, Wylma Duplantis.
He was 20. She was 18. Their love was immutable, passionate and fervent. They would sing “I wish I didn’t love you so” by Betty Hutton to each other often.
They were married within the year.
The couple had their first child, Gene Ellen, in that same year and had 12 children within 11 years. Each child had a number to keep track of clothes.
“She had the six of us, and she had three sets of twins consecutively,” said Rose Marie Naquin, 63, child number three. “It was rough raising twelve kids, I guarantee you.”
The patriarch of a vast family — he had twelve children, 27 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren — his influence in Cajun culture is known throughout the world.
Money was tight for the Dusenbery family But what they lacked in monetary wealth they made up for with love, passion, and talent.
“We had our own family traditions,” said Naquin. “The singing was very important to all of us. [Wylma] gave us that gift. We
didn’t know we could sing until she had us sing.”
The Dusenberys were a family steeped in song. “Papa Gene” played guitar and mandolin and performed for over 30 years with Waylon Thibodeaux. Wylma loved to sing and thought it was important that her children sang as well.
Their singing evolved, with the family entering talent shows and playing at community events. The family sang Christmas songs, folk songs, and ballads. People from all over asked them to perform.
“My sisters and myself, we all played together,” Timothy said, “and that sibling harmony, it was very pretty.”
In the 1970s, Timothy left the band for a while, so Eugene took his place playing the bass guitar.
It was in 1971 when the family began singing in Cajun French. The family worked closely with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. It was through working with CODOFIL that they ended up in France but also promoting tourism in Louisiana by singing for commercials, Gene Ellen said.
“This took us to another step up,” said Sanders.
The Dusenbery Family Singers performed at the Kennedy Center, in Disneyland, at Jazz Festival, in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and even toured France in 1983.
Waylon Thibodeaux, who was 13, toured France with them.
The family charged very little money if they did at all and donated their singing to a number of different causes, said Timothy.
The Dusenberys ran La Trouvaille, an authentic Cajun restaurant in Chauvin from 1980 to 2005. It was an old Acadian house converted into a restaurant.
The family would perform for patrons, many of which came on tour buses. Eugene loved to regale them with song and jokes.
“Papa played there three or four times a week and would entertain the customers,”
Gene Ellen said. “He was full of jokes; full of laughter. He loved making people smile.”
Eugene “Papa Gene” Anthony Dusenbery plays the mandolin his son Timothy gave him eight years ago. Eugene was a cultural representative for Bayou Country, touring with his family band in France, Canada and across the United States. Mr. Dusenbery died Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015.
Eugene Anthony Dusenbery (pictured second from the left on the top) poses with 11 of his kids.