By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Upon first glance, she’s just a cafeteria worker in The Bean, but with every piece of fried chicken and scoop of mashed potatoes, Mary Anne Johnson is serving up a little slice of love.
Generally speaking, one person in everyone’s life has the potential to make an impact. It could be a parent, a teacher, a coach, a close friend… or maybe even a lunch lady like the 46-year-old Johnson.
She has been one of the approximately 130 ACU Dining Services employees for five years, and can usually be found working behind the glass at the food station marked “The CafŽ,” serving the 1,000-plus students who eat in The Bean daily.
“Mary Anne is a great employee,” Dining Services manager Cory Bourg said. “She is always friendly and excited about coming to work. Her work ethic is great because she is so happy to be there.”
Bourg (pronounced Berg) became manager in June, and said he immediately saw in Johnson the qualities that make a good employee.
“I look for honesty, loyalty, integrity and the desire to follow the mission of the university,” he said. “Mary Anne does a great job at all of that.”
Finding an unhappy Johnson is a difficult job however. Despite working in a hot, greasy environment, wearing an apron and hairnet, she greets every student with a ladle in hand and a smile spread across her face.
“I get along with all the college kids,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s real nice and smiling every day. It puts a smile on my face.”
Her friendliness has not gone unnoticed. Matt Foster, junior youth and family ministry major from Westminster, Colo., said The Bean would be a dry place without her there.
“She stands out in a crowd,” Foster said. “She’ll actually converse with you; she’s real. She’s not just there to serve you food, she’s there to make your day better.”
Johnson, who has no husband or children, grew up in Houston. She said she didn’t like it there, and moved to Abilene “a long time ago.” Her first job in Abilene was cleaning houses, followed by a position at Goodwill. She left the thrift store because it didn’t pay well, and was hired on at Dining Services.
Johnson’s services at The Bean consist of serving food, mopping, sweeping, cleaning up the food wells and doing general cleaning in the dining hall. In a typical day, she arrives at ACU about 10:30 on a city bus, and begins work at 11 a.m. for the lunch shift. She takes a break from 2 to 5 p.m. and begins the dinner shift, which lasts until 8 p.m. Then, she either catches the bus or the city van after 8 p.m. to head home and get some sleep before she does the whole thing again.
Mark Weathers, senior Christian ministry major from Abilene, has been a faithful Bean-goer for three and one-half years. He eats in the cafeteria about five or six times a week and said his initial impression of Johnson two years ago wasn’t the positive one he has now.
“My first impression of her was that her affection toward students was a direct correlation of how much food they ordered,” he said. “More food meant more love. Less food meant more resentment. I used to think that she resented students and that she had designed the ideal plate and she was going to give it to you no matter what.”
However, Weathers said, his opinion of Johnson has changed.
“Mary Anne is like the Latrell Sprewell of The Bean,” he said. “Without her, all you’ve got is a couple androids going through the motions who don’t have the passion or fire to get the job done.”
Bourg said Johnson is unique because she takes a genuine interest in the students.
“She wants nothing more than to serve the students and provide them with a good atmosphere,” he said. “They are like her children and they mean the world to her.”
Weathers, too, has noticed Mary Anne’s motherly persona.
“I think the fact that I’m thin makes her want to save my life,” he said. “She feels that I have a mashed potato deficiency.
“Though my mother lives in Abilene, I will never bring her to The Bean,” Weathers said. “I know that Mary Anne has already taken note of how neglectful my mother has been in feeding me. I wouldn’t put her in that kind of danger.”
Bourg said that he has worked with about 500 cafeteria workers in his career as a manager, and said it’s quite possible for them to have an impact on students, even if they’re viewed as just “lunch ladies.”
“I can promise you they have an impact on the students,” Bourg said. “If you come by during Homecoming weekend, you’ll see returning alumni walking around looking for certain workers. To me, no one is ‘just a lunch lady.’ Everyone in the operation has a key role, from the people who wash dishes in the hot, wet basement, to the cooks and bakers who come to work at 4 in the morning, to the folks who serve dinner to the board of trustees. Everyone is equally important to me.”
Like the other employees, Johnson works hard, but likes to have fun just like anyone else. She recalled a particular instance when Bourg found her dancing to a song during clean-up time.
“I was up there with my apron on dancing to the music,” Johnson said, laughing. “Cory asked me if I was jammin’. I always try to have fun on the job.”
And she said she plans on having fun for years to come.
“This job’s the best,” Johnson said. “I want to stay here a long time.”
Students like Foster and Weathers will have no problem with that.
“She has improved my eating experience because she will disobey my direction because she thinks it’s in my best interest to eat a little extra butter and oil,” Weathers said.
“She has most definitely improved my Bean experience,” Foster said. “I would almost say it was worth the seven-odd dollars for the pleasure of having her brighten my day.”