At your service
Senior staff member marks 40 years at Mizzou
Mary White, a Campus Dining Services employee for four decades, walks us through Eva J's. View on YouTube.
Mary White found permanent employment at Mizzou after graduating from Hickman High School in 1970 and cleaning people’s houses for a living. She worked for one day at a dry-cleaning establishment (“I hated it!”) before taking a job washing dishes in the Johnston Hall Cafeteria.
On Jan. 27, 2011, White will mark her 40th anniversary at Mizzou. She has worked in Johnston Hall the entire time.
White clocks in daily as a food service worker to serve meals and replenish the food at Eva J’s Restaurant and Fries & Fare, where she’s recognized by student customers and respected by management for her efficiency and easy-going disposition.
Eva J’s employs 56 students, 13 full-time workers and three managers who keep the restaurant running as part of Campus Dining Services.
White is the most senior employee of CDS's 160 staff members. Through the years, she has served thousands of students and formed friendships with many student helpers. “They become like your children,” she says, recalling the occasions when she “bawled in the bathroom” after saying goodbye to graduating seniors.
Broccoli with that?
A job in MU’s dining services is all about the people, White says. “The employees and students are the best thing about working here. The students are used to me calling them ‘honey’ and ‘babe’ by now.”
White’s co-workers praise her willingness to pitch in when they need help, even in the kitchen. Her best friend — Adela Caratti, a relatively new employee with 12 years of CDS service — says she wants to grow up to be just like her.
The entrée serving line that is White’s primary duty opens at 10:30 each morning, but by then she’s already spent two and a half hours setting up the deli and self-service areas. She arranges condiment displays and bread bins, fills ice containers and napkin holders, gathers fries and hamburger patties, and precooks chicken breasts in the steamer.
Students trickle through the line until about 11:30 a.m. when the lunch-hour rush begins.
“Yum. It looks so good. Thank you, Miss Mary,” says junior Chelsea Becker, a political science major from Steele, Mo. Becker says you can tell White likes being around students. “She’s really sweet and makes fun of my Southern accent.”
White’s student customers check the luncheon selections before requesting the overwhelmingly popular choices of the day — chicken nuggets, curly fries and cheddar-mashed potatoes — which she has to replenish frequently. Any dish with chicken, potatoes or pasta is a student favorite, she says.
Over the years, White has observed the expansion of international food choices that were unfamiliar to students and to her decades ago. With the students, she’s a fan of the Asian cuisine offered in the J Wok area.
It bothers White to see students selecting fried foods when so many healthful and delicious choices are available, but long ago she gave up suggesting they try the vegetables. Even the colorful stir-fried vegetables remain underappreciated, except by vegetarians and adult visitors.
White speculates the students will eat their vegetables when they become adults. The point is they have many healthful choices, a factor that earned CDS a 2005 national award – most outstanding food service facility for colleges and universities – from the International Food Manufacturers Association.
Employee in good standing
After being on her feet for five hours, White takes a break at 1 p.m. “About this time of day I’m worn out. You feel it in your lower back,” she says.
White’s meal contrasts sharply to the foods her student customers prefer. She typically eats a low-fat salad and grilled chicken breast on a wheat bun. In a continuing struggle with diabetes, she watches her diet and checks her blood sugar twice a day.
“Mary is a very even-keeled individual. Nothing fazes her,” says Lisa McDaniels, manager of Campus Dining Services. “If something is out of whack, her stress level stays low.”
That stress level is low now, but it was high in July 2008 when White learned she had cancer of the breast and lymph nodes. Despite the difficult procedures — surgery, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery — she continued to work, although she felt like an “ugly duckling” after losing her hair.
That’s when her colleagues stepped in. White’s co-workers offered so many compliments on her shaved head that the encouragement convinced her she could get through the cancer treatment. As inspiration during October’s breast cancer awareness month, Eva J’s posted White’s story and photos, so customers could relate to her struggle.
Caratti, in particular, was a source of strength. “She kept me going when I was down,” White says. The friendship now includes shopping excursions and softball games.
Temperatures at the steam counter are set high to keep food safe, so serving for the entrée line is hot work. White’s forehead glistens with moisture as she refills a container with marinara sauce. Her uniform is a black CDS polo shirt, black pants, black apron, hair net and rubber gloves.
She spruces up the look by wearing oval earrings emblazoned with the Tigers logo. “Support the Tigers,” she says of her black-and-gold jewelry and confesses that shopping for clothing and interesting jewelry is a favorite pastime.
In late afternoon White will go home to prepare for dinner with her “honey,” Burl, a retired food-service worker who has used a wheelchair since both of his legs were amputated. They enjoy watching Westerns and old movies in their free time, and they take turns cooking. White prefers to make chicken dinners, and, in a perk of her job, hopes to get the recipe for a favorite Eva J’s chicken-and-mushroom dish.
Meanwhile she has a decision to make — selecting her 40th anniversary gift from the University of Missouri System. She’s vacillating between a camera and a television with a DVD player.
At 58, White doesn't see retirement on her plate yet. She likes the idea of a 45th anniversary.