DENHAM SPRINGS Livingston Parish wasn't known as Cajun country until Justin Wilson came along. It has never been the same since.
The 87-year-old internationally renowned humorist, cook and cultural embassador died at a family home in Denham Springs Wednesday. Services were scheduled for Saturday in Baton Rouge with burial in Port Vincent.
"All you ever had to say to him was we need help and he was there," his daughter Sara Easterly remembered. "He loved people."
Born April 24, 1914, in Roseland and educated in Amite, the son of former state Agriculture Commissioner Harry D. Wilson parlayed his local popularity as an MC at functions and dinners into a professional career that included hit record albums and numerous TV appearances. In the 1980s, he branched out and became even better known for his Cajun cooking show that first aired on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, then went into syndication.
He peppered his appearances wherever he went with jokes and stories, many of them about people and places in Livingston Parish.
Along with countless public speaking engagements, he recorded over 27 albums, authored eight Cajun cookbooks, two Cajun humor books and helped develop many Cajun products.
Probably best known for his Cajun cooking series that has aired on Public Broadcasting for 30 years and continues today, he always said he was "not a chef, just a damn good cook."
His status as a Louisiana celebrity and goodwill ambassador was confirmed when he was chosen as one of the first members of the LSU Hall of Fame. He was quick to point out that he had not graduated from college, noting that had he gone back to school at LSU he would be a fifth year freshman. He was an inaugural member of the Louisiana Legends, which also included Aaron Neville, Ron Guidry, George Rodrigue and Russell Long.
Of his many sayings, he is best known for "How ya'll are?" and "I garontee," expressions that endeared him to audiences around the country but also stirred some controversy in Louisiana by critics concerned about the stereotyping of Cajuns.
Easterly said her father was a fun-loving man who learned the importance of a sense of humor during the early 1940s when he was hospitalized for 21 months after he nearly died from an auto accident. He later had to overcome an addiction to morphine as a result.
"He said after that he was going to do anything he could to make people laugh because people are far too serious," Easterly said.
Easterly was 6 years old when Wilson courted her widowed mother, Sara, who had been an Amite High School classmate. She remembers Wilson setting up an impromptu wedding after a fishing trip he had planned with Sara got rained out.
"Mother probably said yes because she didn't know he could pull it off," Easterly said. "She didn't know how many friends and connections he had."
One thing he was serious about was helping people. He is remembered as an ardent supporter of local youth athletics, once rewarding a team he helped coach to a championship in Denham Springs with a trip to the Houston Astrodome.
"Anytime that I called him that had anything to do with these kids around town, he was there," former PARDS director Tony Dugas said. Wilson would often donate money anonymously to help children who could not afford to pay for registration fees, uniforms or equipment, Dugas said.
He helped the community in many other ways during the years he lived on Pete's Highway, recalled local personality Pee Wee Day.
"He would volunteer his time and did a lot of free entertainment for a lot of civic things," Day said.
Wilson was a Professional Member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, Member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Legion Facundas Post 181 , and Lifetime Member of Ducks Unlimited. He taught four human relations courses at police academies in three states.
He is survived by three daughters, Sara Sue Easterly and husband Bob Easterly of Denham Springs; Pam Colleran of Biloxi, Miss., and Menette Catalanotto of Baton Rouge; eight grandchildren, Julie Anne Daniel, Denham Springs, Scott Ayers, Baton Rouge, Jamie Colleran, Rhode Island, Edith Bluhm, Massachusetts, Peter Catalanotto, New Orleans, Grady Wilson, Natchitoches, Katherine Wilson and Clelie W. Stone, Monroe; two step-grandchildren, Robin E. Devall, Denham Springs, Allyson Easterly, Baton Rouge, and 13 great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by wife Sara Rhody Wilson, parents Harry D. Wilson and Olivett Toadvin Wilson; son Harry D. Wilson II, stepson Pat M. Gaddy, brothers Glenn and Ned Wilson and sisters Olivette W. Garrison, Menette W. Kemp and Eloise W. Heidelberg.
Funeral services were held Saturday at noon after visitations Friday and Saturday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. Burial followed at St. Williams Cemetery, Port Vincent.
Memorial contributions should be sent to St. Francis Episcopal Church, 726 Maple Street, Denham Springs, La. 70726.