• Cheré Dastugue Coen

The Haunting of Evelyn Cheesman & Her Magic Violin

Evelyn Pearl Cheesman of Mason City, Iowa, is a family member. She's now part of my Southern clan. We’re not blood-related or connected by marriage. You won’t find her in my ancestry tree or in family photos, but she’s family just the same.


We met in an antique mall in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, as I was rummaging through a stack of old photos within a battered violin case. Old photos are my hobby. I find ones with names on the back or those that pique my curiosity, landmarks from my youth. I steal home with my stash and research their identities, sometimes finding their names on Ancestry.com and posting their photos for others to find. These faces speak to me, beg me to take them home and reconnect them to their lost families.


Evelyn Cheesman was one of those faces. When I found her 1940 photo in the used violin case I was first struck by the location. She was standing on the steps of the historic Bentley Hotel in downtown Alexandria, Louisiana, only an hour’s drive from my town of Lafayette, and near the subject of my current book project, a history of Forest Hill, Louisiana. You can barely make her out at the top of the stairs on the postcard but her notes on the back written by Evelyn to her parents in Mason City, Iowa, gave me the impression that Evelyn, a violinist, was performing for a radio show at the hotel.

William and Fern Cheesman, Mason City

Other photos I unearthed were of Evelyn and her family, her music teachers, and Evelyn in formal dress before what looked like concerts in Iowa City and throughout the Midwest. A few other items in the violin case were tied to Iowa so I grabbed them too, hoping the pile of some thirty-odd photos would tell the whole story.


Evelyn Pearl Cheesman was born Dec 19, 1919, in Mason City, Iowa, to William Cheesman and Fern Young, also musicians. Mason City is a town with a great musical heritage — W.A. Storer, author of the Broadway play “The Music Man,” hailed from Mason City.


Evelyn perfected the violin at an early age, was concertmaster of her high school orchestra and one of the first violinists of the Mason City Civic Symphony Orchestra. She performed as a student with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and with Phil Spitainy’s orchestra, where she earned the title of “Evelyn and Her Magic Violin”at age 13. Cheesman performed on WHO, the same radio station where President Ronald Reagan worked, and met many nationally known musicians before graduating high school.


She attended school at Drake University in Des Moines and Iowa State University while performing regularly in concerts and on the radio. In 1940 she traveled to Alexandria, Louisiana, to perform on the radio from the Bentley Hotel.


It was here she met Louisiana native Austin Vincent, whom she later married. The couple moved to Youngsville, outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, where Austin worked for Superior Oil Company. They had two children, Fern Marian Vincent and Michael Austin Vincent.


I found other photos of Evelyn Cheesman at a local boutique; the owner had also purchased photos from the Breaux Bridge antique broker. When I posted this coincidence on Facebook, my friend Mary Lou Guidry replied that Evelyn was her aunt as Uncle Austin was her dad’s brother. She discussed Evelyn’s two children, explained how everyone was related, and told me a darker side to the story.


“It brought back so many beautiful and precious memories for me,” Mary Lou wrote. “As I looked at the first picture I became very emotional and began to cry. Seeing the beauty and happiness on Aunt Evelyn's face made me remember how lovely she was and how cruel my uncle acted to his wife and children. Also thinking how much of a culture shock it must have been for her, moving from what I viewed in these photos of her loving family in Iowa to moving to South Louisiana and learning and living with a man that was so dominating to her and their adorable children.”


According to Mary Lou, Evelyn secretly left Austin Vincent after obtaining a degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and working as a music teacher in the public schools of St. Martin Parish. Austin remarried and had a daughter that he spoiled, which caused resentment from Evelyn’s son, Michael. In 2012 Michael died and it’s likely the photos and information I found were from his estate.

LaGrange High School yearbook

After our conversation, I was returning home from a visit to Lake Charles when I remembered an interesting antique store in Jennings, Louisiana. I slipped into town and perused the shelves, and it was here that I found at least five more photos of Evelyn Cheesman, showing her as a music teacher in Lake Charles during the 1970s. I asked a friend of mine from Lake Charles if she knew of Evelyn Cheesman and it turned out she had Evelyn as a middle school homeroom teacher when Evelyn was studying for her advanced degrees at McNeese State University. Like everyone else I had spoken to thus far, plus the numerous articles I had researched regarding Evelyn’s career, my friend gushed about her incredible musical talents, stating that when she played her violin in class, it brought tears to her eyes.


I joked to my family and friends that Evelyn was haunting me. And it continued.


The story developed further when Anya Burgess, a violinist in Lafayette who owns Sola Violins, contacted me, asking if I knew anything about Evelyn Cheesman. She had purchased Evelyn’s violins from the estate sale from an antique broker who also let her borrow a photo album once belonging to Evelyn. Anya had pieced some information together from the album, including new information I did not know, but wanted the broader story. Mary Lou, Anya, and I agreed to meet at the antique broker to view the rest of the photo albums. At our rendezvous, we shared stories and research and I purchased all of Evelyn Cheesman’s albums with the promise, since I was the journalist among them, to publish Evelyn’s story.

Dave Brubeck and Evelyn Cheesman

Through those volumes of articles, I learned that Evelyn first taught music in the public schools in St. Martinville, Louisiana, then moved to Lake Charles where she taught at LaGrange High School while getting her master's degree at McNeese State University. She performed with numerous orchestras, including the Lake Charles Civic Symphony under the baton of William Kushner, father of Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, and the Rapides Parish Symphony Orchestra. Among her personal albums are letters from well-known musicians and musical educators who sang her praise, including Isaac Hayes and jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck.


Evelyn and Donald H. Klitsch in Mason City

She was married and divorced twice, but three times's the charm. She and her Iowa childhood sweetheart, widower Donald Harold Klitsch, reconnected in 1980.


According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, they were each other's first dates in high school but by college-age went their separate ways, Evelyn to Louisiana and Donald to Tennessee and California. They married other people. But they always asked about each other when they visited home.


In 1980, Evelyn acquired Don’s address after a high school reunion and considered giving him a call.


“She did, and not long after that telephone conversation, he went to Louisiana,” the article states. “That was on a Sunday and they were married the next day.”


“It took us probably one second,” Evelyn said in the article. “When we saw each other, we knew that was it.”


Maybe Evelyn haunted me with her photos and connections, plaguing me until I wrote this story. After all, she was one of the country’s finest violinists, and the items proving that fell scattered about South Louisiana. I would have loved to have heard her play, but after all the research and the assemblage of her things — I'm now the owner of the Evelyn Cheesman binders and her USL degree — two things gave me the most satisfaction: her granddaughter who never knew her contacted me for information and I passed it along, and that in the end, Evelyn found love.


“It’s been the happiest year of my life,” Evelyn said in that 1981 article, printed on her one-year wedding anniversary.


Evelyn Pearl Cheesman Klitsch died in 1992.


Cheré Coen is the creator of the Weird, Wacky and Wild South blog. She still collects old photographs.



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