Emma J. Humphrey; Cafeteria Manager, Jig-Dancing Yodeler

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007

Emma J. Humphrey, 80, a school cafeteria manager, a baker and a former banjo-strumming yodeler, died Nov. 4 of congestive heart failure at a rehabilitation center affiliated with Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. She was a resident of Damascus and St. Petersburg.

Mrs. Humphrey was born in the small mining town of Jenners, Pa. A Depression-era child, she helped her grandmother clean hotel rooms, and when she won a talent show as an 8-year-old, she used her prize money to buy a winter coat.

At 15, eager to support the war effort, she made her way to Baltimore, where she convinced the Glenn L. Martin Co. that she was 18. The pioneering airplane manufacturer, forerunner to Lockheed Martin, made her a real-life Rosie the Riveter.

She married three years later and lived briefly in Phoenix, where she worked for Motorola. She and her husband moved to Potomac, a rural community at the time; when the well at the house ran dry, they moved to Rockville, then Damascus.

She was a cafeteria manager for Montgomery County public schools for more than three decades. At Ritchie Park Elementary School, where she managed the cafeteria from 1969 to 1984, she also taught baking and food preparation to county cafeteria employees. Known for her made-from-scratch rolls, cakes and pies, she also ran a catering business that featured custom wedding cakes.

A member of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville, she organized holiday dinners and filled 30 to 40 food and gift baskets annually for needy families, often paying for them out of her pocket. She also catered and provided entertainment for senior citizen dinners and served two terms as president of the Councilettes for the Derwood chapter of the Knights of Columbus.

Mrs. Humphrey yodeled a country and western repertoire. Proudly Irish, with green eyes and red hair -- "sort of an 'I Love Lucy' look," a daughter-in-law recalled -- she sang and played the guitar and banjo with her son's band and regularly performed an Irish jig. When a leprechaun went missing one year on the eve of a St. Patrick's Day parade through downtown Washington, she happily hopped atop the float as a replacement.

Throughout her life, she looked after others, including younger sister Irene, who was born months prematurely as the family Model T jounced over a bumpy mountain road. Back home, the young Mrs. Humphrey took her turn feeding the nestling-size infant with an eyedropper, while the baby lay swaddled in a shoe box atop the open oven door of the kitchen stove.

Besides being her disabled sister's primary caregiver, Mrs. Humphrey also tended to a disabled husband, raised eight children and worked full time for Montgomery schools.

She also survived five heart attacks, frequent bouts of angina, congestive heart failure, a quadruple bypass and a stroke. Afterlife experiences, three in all, became as familiar as "Seinfeld" reruns.

When she received a diagnosis of three types of cancer, Mrs. Humphrey became a candidate for an innovative bone marrow transplant. But her insurance company refused to cover the cost of the procedure. In 1997, after her plight was featured on the local ABC TV affiliate's "Seven on Your Side," an oncologist who saw the report agreed to perform the procedure for free. The transplant held the cancer at bay for eight years.

She was the only patient, her doctor said, who never missed a day of work during chemotherapy -- although her days of yodeling ended when doctors had to remove the lymph nodes from her neck.

Retiring in 1997, Mrs. Humphrey took trips to European countries, including the land of her forebears, and continued to care for her sister.

Some years after the death of her first husband, William C. Foy, in an auto accident in 1972, she married a shy bingo caller at her parish hall. Horace C. Humphrey, a Pentagon employee, died in 2005.

A daughter, Gloria Jean Martin, died in 1977; a son, Daniel Foy, died in 1983. Both were from her first marriage.

Survivors include six children from her first marriage, Buck Foy of Knightdale, N.C., John Foy of Altoona, Pa., Tim Foy of Selbyville, Del., Susan Devaney of West Blocton, Ala., Sandy Foy of Elizabethtown, Ky., and Matt Foy of Violet Hill, Ark.; two stepdaughters from her second marriage, Patricia Irvin of Lady Lake, Fla., and Joyce Sharrar of Frederick; a sister and brother; 27 grandchildren; and 32 great-grandchildren.

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