LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - In 1950, Harry Truman was president, Earl Long was governor of Louisiana and Hilma Levis was Hilma LaBauve, a 19-year-old sophomore at Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute in her hometown of Lafayette.
She was majoring in elementary education at SLI, and outside of class, she wrote for The Vermilion and cheered on the Bulldogs as one of the Red Jackets. The pep squad was known for their formations on the field, their white pleated skirts and gloves, and their red jackets, of course.
Seventy years later, Levis, 89, returned to her hometown and alma mater, wearing a red jacket and reminiscing with old friends about how they would get demerits if their saddle shoes weren’t clean.
“It was a lot of camaraderie,” said Betty Lowry of Lafayette. “We all cheered and marched together.”
Lowry, 87, was on the squad from 1950 to 1953.
“It gave me a group to be a part of,” Lowry said.
The squad lasted only through 1957, to be replaced over time by other groups like the Sweethearts and the Ragin’ Jazz, but that hasn’t stopped them. The Red Jackets are still at it.
Members return to campus every year for homecoming, calling themselves the Agin’ Ragin’ Cajuns, to hold a meeting, share a meal and watch the football game together.
“It’s our little community,” said Corinne Randazzo, 88, from Vidalia.
Despite COVID-19 and other difficulties of 2020, this group and Levis gathered Saturday, watching the game on a screen at the Alumni Center and sitting six feet apart.
This year they also celebrated the 70th anniversary of Levis’ accomplishment - writing the school’s fight song.
Back when she was a sophomore SLI held a schoolwide competition to write its fight song, and Levis pulled out a tune that had been in her head for a few years.
Levis had come up with the melody during her junior year of high school, the only year she spent in Logansport, south of Shreveport, where her brother Jack was the high school band director. She’d moved there for one year after their father had passed but would return to her hometown to graduate from Lafayette High in 1949.
A small school, many of the Logansport High band members also played football, so they needed as many members as they could find to play an instrument at the spring scrimmage. Levis’ brother recruited her.
“I was between the cymbals and bells,” Levis said. “He brought (an instrument) home for me to get the hang of it. I picked out a tune. For some reason I kept the tune in my head. Three years later it became the fight song.”
She worked on the tune with her brother again when she learned of the SLI fight song contest. They rushed to turn it in just before the deadline, and then she kind of forgot about it.
“I never thought any more about it,” Levis said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to win this thing.‘”
She was wrong, of course. Soon after she got a call from the student body president who told her, “Your song is very good, but you’d have a better chance of winning if it had words.”
Levis still laughs at that when she tells the story. She had been so focused on the music that she’d forgotten to write lyrics.
She said she quickly pulled out song books and got to work, finding powerful words like “triumph” and “glory” that UL Lafayette alumni might recognize.
And her song won, earning her a $100 savings bond and a legacy still being celebrated 70 years later.
As for the bond, she turned it in for the cash so she could repay her brother.
“My brother needed a desk,” she said. “I got him one for helping me. Without him I wouldn’t have won.”
After sophomore year, Levis went on to be a Red Jackets squad leader, earn her degree in elementary education and teach 24 years in Texas, where she met her husband and raised her family.
She keeps coming back to Lafayette as often as she can, now as an Agin’ Ragin’ Cajun.
“I’ve been coming (to the reunions) every year, mostly because of the Red Jackets,” Levis said. “I love the parades. And it’s nice to hear my song, everybody singing.”
Her daughter, Terri Levis, usually drives her to Lafayette. She’s gotten to know the others in the group and looks forward to coming every year. Plus, she gets to celebrate her mom’s song.
“I didn’t grow up knowing this,” she said. “I found out around her 50th college reunion, so in the early 2000s. I said, ‘Mom, this is a big deal.‘”
The words of Levis’ song have changed a bit since she penned them, as the school has changed names and mascots. Cajuns replaced Bulldogs, but like “the Red and White,” the message has remained - to sing of triumph and glory and fight on to victory.
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