For Jerry Devillier, life has been a series of overcoming obstacles and beating the odds.
Devillier spent his early years growing up on a small farm between Eunice and Mamou, the second and last child of Amar “Tee Frére” and Dula Devillier.
Raised speaking only French, Devillier had never heard a word of English until he started school.
As share croppers, Devillier’s family didn’t have much money; Devillier said his father made less than $300 a year the last three years of high school.
“Everything we ate we grew ourselves,” Devillier said. “Mama would make our shirts out of burlap sacks.”
It was because of the Army sack Devillier used to carry his school books in during the long trip to the bus stop that he picked up the name Booksack; the name has stuck with him for over 50 years.
Devillier was also a chronic stutterer, a condition he believes may have developed from a case of rheumatic fever at the age of two.
“It was hard, being poor and a chronic stutterer and constantly being laughed at,” Devillier said of his childhood.
One thing Devillier did have going for him, however, was athletic talent.
At that time, volleyball and boxing were big sports, and Devillier made varsity volleyball in the eighth grade.
Due to his speed and agility, he was also highly successful at track and on the basketball court.
His coaches worked to keep Devillier in school at a time when most farm boys dropped out to help their families.
Another thing Devillier had going for him was his skill with the harmonica.
Devillier’s mother gave him his first harmonica at the age of five, and took to it like a fish takes to water.
Devillier, 71, taught himself to play harmonica using a rare style, tongue blocking, which allows the harmonica to mimic the accordion.
Devillier’s harmonica-playing won him first place in a 4-H parish music competition, and Devillier went to compete at the state level at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Even though Devillier’s “Booksack Boogie” failed to take first place, it provided him with a much-needed boost to his self-esteem.
“That was my first trip out-of-town, going to LSU, and that was a big, big thing,” Devillier said. “It gave me self-esteem that I needed; I had very low self-esteem, because of my stuttering, and where I came from.”
After high school, Devillier, along with Cyprien and Adam Landreneau, were invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, a famous annual event held in Newport, Rhode Island.
“I was really not excited about going because I thought they’d laugh us out of the place,” Devillier said, noting that Cajun music was poorly regarded outside Louisiana at the time.
Later, he learned that other top bands, such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Donovan, Blue Grass Mountain Boys and other top performers were playing at the weekend event, and his fear of being booed off the stage grew, but instead, the Cajun performers were very well-received.
“We were the only ones in the whole weekend who got a standing ovation and an encore, and that blew my mind; it just blew my mind to see people get that excited about Cajun music,” Devillier said.
Devillier continues to play harmonica to this day, and has performed at events in France, in England, at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and is a regular guest at the National Harmonica Festival.
In 1956, Devillier began attending the University of Southern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette), even though he had no money to pay for it.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know it cost anything,” Devillier recalled.
Devillier emptied slops for 49 cents an hour, just enough to cover his room and board. Devillier also worked at washing cars at home on weekends.
He initially majored in petroleum engineering, but switched his major to mathematics.
It was during college that Devillier was able to overcome his stutter through breathing exercises.
Immediately after graduating, Devillier was drafted into the U.S. Army.
He served a little over a year before his father was injured, and he received a hardship discharge to take care of the family farm.
“My daddy was in a bad accident, he had a brain concussion, so he applied for a hardship discharge, which I knew nothing about,” Devillier said.
After his father recovered, Devillier became a high school math teacher and girls basketball coach at Chataignier, Eunice and Lafayette.
It was during this time that Devillier got his big break in photography, courtesy of Eunice News publisher Matt Vernon.
One of the girls Devillier coached at Chatagnier broke a state record in scoring; Devillier asked the Eunice News to send a photographer; Vernon said he didn’t have any available, but if Devillier could send him a picture, he might use it.
“They asked me, ‘Could you shoot other pictures for us?’ I said sure, and that’s how I got started,” Devillier recalled.
Devillier’s sports and racetrack pictures appeared in the Eunice News, Opelousas Daily World, New Orleans Times-Picayune and elsewhere, and Devillier began doing wedding and commercial photography on the side.
Devillier was at the forefront of using color photography, available light shots, and double exposures in wedding shots in Louisiana.
“I was always being more creative than the other guys, so I charged more money,” Devillier said.
He taught at USL for only one year, but decided to open his own photography studio in Eunice after making more money at photography in one weekend than he made in a month as a professor.
Devillier’s success was short-lived, however, when an automobile accident turned his life upside-down in 1975.
Devillier went through several surgeries for neck, back and shoulder injuries that ultimately cost him his marriage, his hobbies, his home and his business.
He sank into a deep depression, but after much soul-searching, Devillier managed to turn things around.
“I found myself, and more importantly, I found God, which I desperately needed to do at that time,” Devillier said.
Devillier then became involved with self-help programs in an effort to help others experiencing difficult times in their lives.
Devillier is still plagued with difficulties due to the injuries he sustained, but continues to be active, walking two miles or more a day and working out. He also enjoys staying up-to-date with computers, photography and video editing, and he continues to play the harmonica, having been interviewed recently by Lafayette public radio station KRVS 88.7 FM.
Devillier plans to attend the 2009 National Harmonica Festival in Sacramento this August.
Devillier also takes classes in sociology and psychology at LSU Eunice.
“To be well, you have to be spiritually, physically and emotionally fit,” Devillier said.
Devillier remains close to his daughter Candace Devillier, who works as a special education teacher in Boulder, Colo. He also has an eight-year-old granddaughter, Isabella.