By Clare Kolenda
For the past 35 years, first-years, returning seniors, faculty and even alumni from classes past have one thing in common: at one point Albion experience they almost certainly encountered Mary Johnson, the lunch lady who stands in Baldwin Café, swiping meal cards for all the students who come in.
Johnson, 72, not only has been a member of the city of Albion, but has been part of the Albion College community for several years. For Johnson, a typical day starts at 6 a.m., where she is in charge of setting up fruit, refilling cereal, and brewing coffee for students as they file in. Just as surely as students know there will be eggs and sausage on the menu, they know that Johnson will be there to greet them with a bright and cheery “Morning!”
Shy or boisterous, early bird or morning grouch, students receive a smile, a word of encouragement, or a teasing comment from Mary. The introverts smile cautiously as they hold out their Albion 1cards, while groups of athletes will lumber in with a boisterous greetings. She responds to them all the same.
Over the course of several mornings earlier this month, I sat down to talk with Johnson in order to hear her story and learn more about her work beyond her job description. Who I found was a woman who loves her job and is passionate about connecting with students.
Johnson’s work isn’t just for a paycheck. It’s for the chance to interact with the students. On the breaks, she confessed, she often gets bored. “But, I just think, ‘you’re going back to see the students and you’ll be fine.’”
It’s her conversations with the students that make her job so rewarding.
“I’ll talk to anyone, whether they’ll talk to me or not. No matter if they’re friendly or unfriendly,” she said with a wink.
Johnson’s role goes beyond her refilling coffee carafes and offering a morning greeting. She watches over students, taking them under her wing and caring for them. Take a minute to watch her interact with students and you can see their relationship goes beyond a simple hello. She tries to coax one student to try an omelet instead of just another bowl of yogurt. She remembers the names of different students, asking how their summer break was. She converses with faculty members as they enter.
Cliff Harris, an Albion College chemistry professor since 1997, met Johnson shortly after he started working at the college.
“Mary is more than just an employee, she’s an institution. It’d be hard to imagine this place without her,” he said.
Kimberly Frick-Arndts, an ’84 alumna , now works in the Institutional Advancement office here at Albion. She retells a story of visiting Baldwin shortly after beginning working for the college: “When I walked back down, (Mary) said, ‘Oh, it’s Miss Kim. I haven’t seen you in a while!’”
From then to now
Johnson started working in “The Keller,” which was located in the lower part of Baldwin. It functioned as its own diner, serving classic diner fare such as fries and milkshakes, until it closed and merged with the rest of Baldwin Café. When she worked in the Keller, it had been Johnson’s job to help serve and make the food. Although her love for a good strawberry milkshake has not wavered, her role has changed drastically over the years. Management switched over to Bon Appétit three years ago and changed much of how Baldwin was run and served food.
Management is only one big change that she has seen. Before the technological advances of the past few years, the check in process to enter Baldwin was not as simple as swiping a card. The whole system ran on a punch card, where she would have to physically punch out every student number on the sheet.
“There used to be lines (of students) out the door,” she said.
This might have been challenging for some employees, but for Johnson, it was just another way to get to know the students better.
“I knew everyone’s student numbers. I’d see a student walk by the windows, and by the time they walked through the doors I had their student number punched and ready to go.”
Through the years, she has seen her fair share of students. She always says the friendliest students are her favorites, delighting in the simple day-to-day conversations she shares with them. “I like knowing that students like me…Students say, ‘When I see you I feel so much better,’’’ Johnson said.
Her personality and connection with the students help create almost a family atmosphere within the Baldwin Café. She tells the story of a former student named Brent and about how his mother used to contact Johnson if she was having trouble finding her son. “‘I’m sure you’ll find Brent for me,’ she would say.”
Brent is just one example of many of the interactions that she shares with students every day. Just walk around Baldwin and you’ll discover several students have a love or admiration for her.
Alex Miller, a dual enrolled student, talked about how comforting her greeting was in a new environment. “She was the first person I met,” Miller said.
“It’s nice that somebody’s in a good mood in the morning.” Tyler Covell, Cedar Springs junior, joked. “She’s always there, ready…she’s an efficient worker.”
Johnson has experienced multiple changes in her life throughout the years she has worked for Albion College. She helped care for her husband, who passed away several years ago, during the last years of his life. And she helped take care of her son while he battled cancer. He now is in full health and a consistent support in her life once again.
“There would be some night’s I’d go visit him and wonder if that would be the last time I’d see him.” She said. Beneath her winsome smile and easy going attitude lies a strength that many students miss as they hurriedly make their way to the salad bar.
“I’m the same day in, day out. I’m a very easy going person. I try not to bring my problems to work.”
Fashion changes and practical jokes
In her years working for Albion, Johnson has interacted with countless students and has seen almost everything.
From bellbottoms to skinny jeans, from short skirts to long maxi dresses, she has seen every fashion style walk through the doors at Baldwin.
“Now, I’ve noticed, that anything you wear is in style.” She shrugged, “It’s been something.”
Fashion styles aren’t the only things that have changed since she started working at Albion. According to Johnson, the students themselves have changed as well.
“They’ve changed for the better,” she says, saying that the current classes are much nicer and friendlier than classes past.
She recounts a story of years before when a student brought a mouse into Baldwin. It was because of Johnson’s ability of noticing the small details of students that they found the culprit.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘Who brought in a brown paper bag?’” She chuckled, still remembering.
There were also instances when freshman students would come in and make such a mess that they were forced to clean up the café and after themselves. Past students would play multiple practical jokes on one another, some going as far as to put caterpillars in the salad bowls.
Even with the past experiences, Johnson still has a love for the students here. “I like their conversations, I like their remarks. I like their smiles and I like their friendliness.”
Johnson herself has been known to be quite the joker. Pete Hopkins has been a supervisor over Baldwin for the past nine months and said that there was a long running joke between the two of them.
“I can’t say though,” he said with a grin. “She was probably a class clown back in school.” He chuckled. “She’s really sweet and awesome to work with.”
Throughout all the changes and events she has seen, Johnson still appears as a constant reason to smile as you head into Baldwin.
“I never thought I’d stay here this long. The students make me want to stay. That’s why I’m here today.”