Cooks' choice: Serving food and one another

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

Waiting in line, the antsy diners drummed metal spoons on plastic trays. A critical shortage of hot-dog buns already had the staff on edge. Now the basement lunchroom's noise level was two decibels below an infernal racket.

Even so, the cafeteria workers at St. Michael School in Sharonville managed to serve everyone an ample portion of kindness.

They catered to a first-grader who was allergic to milk. They helped calm the quivering lower lip of a frightened little girl who left her lunch at home. They coaxed a fourth-grader into eating a full meal after he refused to put a thing on his tray. They smiled at every kid and called many by name.

An hour later, when the five cafeteria workers started their lunch hour, they extended the same kindness to each other.

"These girls," said server Carol Piepmeier, "are so neat to work with. I love coming down here."

As I found out during a recent "Lunch with Cliff," the school's cafeteria workers just think they're doing their jobs. After serving lunch for 473 students and teachers, the five workers sat at a corner table by a well-used milk cooler. Their midday meal consisted of reheated school-lunch leftovers, hot dogs, baked beans, bar cookies and milk. I told them how impressed I was with the care they put into serving the kids. But they respectfully declined to accept any compliments.

"We're not going out of our way with the kids. We're not doing anything special," protested cook Mary Jo Roth. "We're just making sure these students know they're important."

Happy meals

Adrienne Larson, the cafeteria's manager, shares smiles with the workers as well as the students. "During our lunch," she said, nodding to the women around the table, "we're an opinionated bunch. We talk politics, TV shows and movies. We laugh and cut up. And since everyone here either has children in the school and - or this is their parish church, we catch up on school and church gossip."

"But, the gossip is never evil or mean," server Terry Dunigan added with a mischievous giggle.

"And we keep the gossip to a minimum," said Monica Koch, a school mom and cafeteria volunteer. She said the workers have become friends out of a closeness that stems from "Sharonville's small-town atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody else. We see each other at football games, on our walks, at restaurants. We're just naturally close."

"We can count on each other all the time," Carol added. "For everything. No matter what."

Supportive friends

Adrienne called the cafeteria crew "a good daily support system. When something happens to one of us at night, at home, away from school, we'll come in the next day and share it with each other at our lunch in the cafeteria."

Rubbing a face made ruddy from standing for hours over steaming-hot pots of food, Mary Jo mentioned the cafeteria's helpful environment. "If someone gets sick or has to go somewhere, we are all willing to cover for them. No questions asked. Whenever I need a favor, inside or outside the cafeteria, I know I can just tap one of them on the shoulder and they'll do it."

Every woman at the table knew from working other jobs that the level of cooperation in the cafeteria is exceptionally high. Adrienne tried to explain why. "Working here," she began, "is not just a job."

She's right. St. Michael is where their children go to school and their families worship. For some, the church and the school have been part of family life for generations.

As a schoolgirl, Monica ate in the very same basement cafeteria. She still remembers the pizza and its "thick and puffy" crust with fondness. She recalled a chili and spaghetti combination with a frown.

"We just don't work in this cafeteria and go home," Adrienne said. "We have a personal stake here to do our best."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.