Matriarch’s love for family, Cajun culture shared in song

Leave TOPS alone
January 27, 2015
Minority judge issue ongoing
January 27, 2015
Leave TOPS alone
January 27, 2015
Minority judge issue ongoing
January 27, 2015

If there was ever a woman who captured the essence of Acadiana, it was Wilma Dusenbery. She was kind, gentle, and had love that knew no boundaries.

The matriarch of a vast family – Wilma had 12 children, 27 grandchildren, 36 or 37 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren – her influence in Cajun culture is known throughout the world.

She married Eugene ‘Papa Gene’ Dusenbery at the age of 18 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 23 kids, I guarantee you.”

Money was tight for the Dusenberys. But what they lacked in monetary wealth they made up for with love, passion and talent.

Talent, especially.

“We had our own family traditions,” Naquin said. “The singing was very important to all of us. She 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 more than 30 years with Waylon Thibodeaux. Wilma loved to sing and thought it was important that her children did too.

“How we got started was my Great Aunt Rosadelle,” said Timothy Dusenbery, child number two. “And she picked us up one Christmas Eve and said, ‘I want ya’ll to go around and start singing Christmas carols.’ So we started as a family singing Christmas carols.”

There were some Christmases when times were tough. But friends and family would help the couple to give their children the Christmas they deserved. Wilma was at a loss as to how to repay the community for their kindness and Rosadelle suggested to Wilma that she repay them with song, Naquin said.

“Many, many people helped the family,” said Gene Ellen Sanders, the eldest Dusenbery. “And Rosadelle said, ‘You can give them a song.’”

Their singing evolved, with the family entering talent shows and playing at community events. They 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.”

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.

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 CODOFIL that they ended up in France but also promoting tourism in Louisiana by singing for commercials, Sanders said.

“This took us to another step up,” she said.

The family charged very little, if any, money and donated their singing to a number of causes, Timothy said.

“We never really charged much,” he said. “Momma was a very simple person. She didn’t want to charge. She wanted to give.”

“She never said ‘no,’” Naquin said. “We never said ‘no’ to people when they wanted us to sing.”

Wilma was also a talented cook. She ran La Trouvaille, an authentic Cajun restaurant in Chauvin from 1980 to 2005. It was an old Acadian house converted into a restaurant and a staple for locals and popular landmark for tourists.

“The tour buses would come and she hugged everyone,” Naquin said. “Every single person that ever came to the restaurant, she hugged them.”

Wilma didn’t do it for the money. She would only have one dish prepared for patrons featuring her traditional Cajun dishes.

“You wouldn’t go in there and order,” Timothy said. “It was just like going over to grandma’s house and eating on Sunday.”

“We used the first Sunday of every month to invite the people of the community, or the people who wanted to meet the family or they’d hear us sing,” said Naquin. “That was a big deal; they wanted to hear us sing.”

Wilma was more than a kindhearted entertainer, though. She also had a sense of humor.

One day in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Wilma and “Papa” Gene received a letter in the mail from the IRS stating they owed back taxes.

“I don’t know how much money was owed and she’s not here to say how much money was owed, but I don’t think it was very much,” Sanders said.

“…and she wrote them back and told them that they could not afford to pay those back taxes,” Naquin chimed.

Wilma received a letter from the IRS in response asking if she had any collateral to settle the debt in the meantime. She responded that she did not have any collateral other than her children and that they can come and pick one, as a joke.

One day, a man in a grey suit and hat knocked.

“And she opened the door and he introduced himself and he said he was coming to pick the one that they would accept for the back taxes,” Naquin said.

The six oldest children had just gotten off the school bus at that moment.

”My brother John was having an appendicitis attack. The whole house was mayhem. And [the tax man] just tipped his hat…bid her good day and he left. And she never heard anything back from the IRS.”

Wilma Dusenbery was born in Houma on Nov. 6, 1929. She passed away on Sunday, Jan. 11, surrounded by her family and loved ones.

Wilma Dusenbery (at microphone) and her daughters perform for guests outside the LaTrouvaille, an authentic Cajun restaurant in Chauvin she operated from 1980 to 2005. “You wouldn’t go in there and order,” Timothy Dusenbery said. “It was just like going over to grandma’s house and eating on Sunday.