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In One Cafeteria, a Familiar Face Amid Decades of Change

By Ian Shapira
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C04

Beatrice Mowdy, 75, remembers the days when cafeteria lunch ladies had to work really hard for their keep. Back in the day, she and her fellow workers had to bake all the breads, make all the sauces from scratch, roast the turkeys and slice them up for serving.

Now, in the Age of Crowding, schools need to make a lot more food in a lot less time, so they have to rely much more on prepared foods.

"We made hamburger buns; we made hot-dog buns; we made regular buns; we made pizza dough. We made all the cakes and pies," Mowdy recalled during a recent shift at Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge. "I never thought I'd be here for 40 years. I like being around kids. I think this job makes me feel better."

Working in a cafeteria -- surrounded by constantly whirring machines and children -- can be one of the most physically grueling jobs in the school system. At a beginning wage of about $10 an hour for about six-hour days, it is certainly one of the lowest-paying. In Prince William County, cafeteria workers generally stay about five years.

But some stay far longer. Mowdy, who began working at the Woodbridge middle school in 1965 for $1 an hour, was among more than 300 employees honored last week for reaching milestones in their careers -- 20, 25, 30, 35 and, in her case, 40 years in the system.

At a ceremony at Battlefield High School on Thursday night, many of them received pins noting the numbers of years they have worked and cash awards ranging from $400 to $500, schools spokeswoman Irene Cromer said.

No one else in the school system's history has worked as long as Mowdy in the food service division, said Serena Suthers, the division's director.

"You're certainly not doing what people consider prestigious work. It's not glamorous," Suthers said. "But you do get to have great contact with the kids and do something you feel good about, where you actually make a difference."

Many people take cafeteria jobs because the hours allow them to see their own kids off to school and get home again before the kids return. That was Mowdy's reason.

She and her husband, Raymond, had just returned to Northern Virginia from Germany, where he had been stationed for military duty. He got a job with the city of Alexandria, and she stayed home with seven children in their three-bedroom Woodbridge home near Route 1.

"I was sitting around the house all alone, and I just tired of it," she said.

Raised on a vegetable farm in Mississippi, Mowdy knew how to cook and prepare meals, so she figured cafeteria work suited her best. She called three middle schools in the county, and when one contacted her for an interview, she got so excited that she forgot which one it was. She raced off to Rippon Middle School, where administrators were bewildered at her presence.

So she went home and waited for the right school -- Fred M. Lynn -- to call again.

With her silver hair that grows straight up and her gentle demeanor, Mowdy has been able to stand out in an often anonymous job. Students, teachers and parents usually call her by any one of a few nicknames: "Grandma," "Mrs. Bea" or just "Bea." Students say they like her because she often gives them a few extra days to pay for their meals if necessary.

Mowdy said she stuck around because she enjoyed the work and the kids, who have made her feel youthful as she has aged. Her co-workers have become close friends, and in the summers, some of them get together for brunch at the nearby Bob Evans. Her greatest satisfaction is seeing former students come through her line as teachers.

Jason Christensen, 28, a basketball and baseball coach at Lynn, said that Mowdy will sometimes give him extra helpings and that if he's late for lunch, she'll retrieve something that has been put away.

"What's going on, Mrs. Bea? How ya doin'?" he said, greeting her in line on a recent day.

Gripping a plastic tray in one hand and three breaded chicken wings in the other, Mrs. Bea cut to the chase.

"You gonna eat?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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