Lunch Lady Life Lessons

One of the very first people I remember meeting as a first-year student at Wittenberg University passed away last week. It wasn’t my roommate, or a professor, or even a friendly student affairs administrator. Ann McGree, the woman who swiped your dining card to let you into the cafeteria, passed away peacefully in her sleep. I found out through a Facebook post from one of my sorority sisters and immediately burst into tears. 

ImageImage and text posted to the Wittenberg University Facebook page on January 31st

Ann was the spirit of Wittenberg. She was friendly, helpful, engaged, knew everyone, and was the honorary grandmother of every single student on our tiny, 2,400 person campus. She was rarely without a smile and somehow remembered your name and something about you, regardless of whether you were the star basketball player, the student body president, or like me, a quiet young woman from a tiny town two hours away. Ann made an impact on everyone and took on the role of honorary Wittenberg mascot. She was invited to programs, attended events, and was the key role in many publicity roll-outs because she saw nearly every student, every day. Ann was so deeply loved and respected by the Wittenberg community, that she received one of only a few “shout-outs” in the letter outgoing President Mark Erikson penned to say farewell to the Witt world. Quite simply, Ann made an impact. 

Ann made a particular impact on me because my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after I left for college. It was a confusing time for our family because my Grandma West was the keystone of our family. She was the grandma who, quite literally, had anything you would ever need. It didn’t matter if it was a button to a jacket, a specific kind of cookie cutter, or the best damn apple pie recipe on the planet. She was the grandmother that baked a special treat every single day and had the house that all the neighborhood kids flocked to because snacks, books, hugs, and whistling along to Conway Twitty tunes were always in abundance. My favorite part about my Grandma was that she had a feisty, sassy side. Every once in awhile she would let a curse word fly, turn to us kids and say, “You know what? Sometimes it just feels good to say ‘shit.'” This also came up with her relationship with my Grandpa who was particular about nearly everything. Grandma convinced him that sausage was just “spicy hamburger” and brownies were just a cake mix that didn’t bake all the way. She made up words and phrases like “doohickey,” “new nothing with a whole in it” and insisted on calling the couch a “davenport” even though we constantly corrected her and tried to get her to “get with the times.”  

ImageMy Grandma and Grandpa West on their wedding day. I love this picture! 

Grandma West also had an incredible memory, which is what made the Alzheimer’s diagnosis that much harder to adjust to. Since she was so sassy, she spent many years covering for herself and telling other people that they were remembering wrong, not her. This made going home for me really hard. I dreaded going to see my Grandma because I never knew which Grandma I was going to get. Was it going to be the Grandma of my childhood who wanted to make hard tack candy or toast with a special cinnamon sugar mixture that I still haven’t mastered? Was it going to be the Grandma you wasn’t sure if I was a freshmen in high school or college? Or was it going to be the Grandma who tried desperately to recall my name when I hugged her? 

This is why Ann was so important to my college experience. She always remembered me, and all of my friends as well. She not only remembered my name, but was willing to strike up a conversation, ask about my classes, sorority, or post-graduate plans. Ann also had a sassy side that reminded me of my Grandma. I often saw her look the other way when a student had run out of meal points near the end of the semester. I once got pulled aside by Ann and given a stern talking-to when a predatory credit card company nearly had me hooked on applying for an account. I got a 30 second crash course on financial planning, the importance of building your credit while in college, and how a poor credit score could impact my ability to get a car or home loan. All of this from “just” a lunch lady. 

Ann was so much more than just a lunch lady. She was everyone’s grandmother and for many of us, we needed her more than she would ever know. Thank you, Ann. You truly taught me what it meant to be a Tiger. 

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