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Jan. 20, 2011 Volume 32, No. 16

40 years of service comes with a signature smile

Mary White

GOING STRONG Mary White has been serving meals and making friends in Johnston Hall for four decades. The senior employee of Campus Dining Services, White is known for her easy-going disposition and efficiency. Shane Epping photo.


Retirement not on the menu for Mary White

Mary White found permanent employment at MU shortly after graduating from Hickman High School in 1970. After cleaning people’s houses for a living, she worked for one day at a dry-cleaning establishment — she hated it — before taking a job washing dishes in the Johnston Hall Cafeteria.

On Jan. 27, White will mark her 40th anniversary at Mizzou. She clocks in daily to Johnston Hall 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.

White is the senior employee of Campus Dining Services’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.

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.”

The entrée serving line that is White’s primary duty opens at 10:30 each morning. By then, she’s already spent two and a half hours setting up the deli and self-service areas. Students trickle through the line until about 11:30 a.m. when the lunch-hour rush begins.

Junior Chelsea Becker, a political science major from Steele, Mo., 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. Any dish with chicken, potatoes or pasta is a student favorite, says White, who has observed the expansion of international food choices that were unfamiliar to students decades ago.

Although it bothers White to see students selecting fried foods when so many healthful and delicious choices are available, she long ago gave up suggesting they try the vegetables. 

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 with 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 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 coworkers 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.  

Adela Caratti, a relatively new employee with 12 years of CDS service, is White’s best friend. She says Caratti, in particular, was a source of strength during her illness and recovery. “She kept me going when I was down,” White says.

In late afternoon White will go home to prepare for dinner with her “honey,” Burl, a retired food-service worker. They enjoy watching Westerns and old movies, and they take turns cooking. White prefers to make chicken dinners and hopes to get the recipe for a favorite chicken-and-mushroom dish from Eva J’s.

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.

— Nancy Moen

Reprinted with permission of Mizzou Wire