Lunch Ladies Reminisce

Their accounts of behind-the-scenes activity in the cafeteria of St. Francis Borgia grade and high school in Washington may vary somewhat, but a group of former lunch ladies agree on two things  — there was a lot of love and they had a lot of fun.

Now residing at Cedarcrest Manor in Washington, Marcella Grech, 88; Rita “Moe” Marquart, 77; Ruth Heitmann, 92; and Susie Gildehaus, 102, looked back about 50 years ago, to a time when they all worked together as lunch ladies at the school.

The room filled with laughter as the ladies recalled some of their favorite memories.

The women worked together in the ’60s and ’70s.

Things were different back then.

“You had to use the government commodity,” Marcella said. “If you didn’t use it you lost it. Inspectors didn’t tell you when they were coming either. They just showed up.”

The grade and high school were still on the same site, at second and Cedar streets in Downtown Washington.

Though none of the ladies actually attended St. Francis Borgia, their children did. In fact, Susie’s daughter, Carolyn Peters, remembers visiting her mom in the cafeteria.

Marcella, head cook, and Ruth took a two-week cooking course at the University of Missouri.

Marcella said the staff was required to serve five things per day. In 1971, lunch was 30 cents for grade school students and 35 cents for high school students.

Everything was made from scratch including rolls, cinnamon rolls, cakes, stewed tomatoes and gravy.

To prepare, the ladies had to be at the school by 7:30 a.m. They served lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and had to be finished cleaning by 2 p.m. Then, they had to wash and put away dishes and clean the grill.

Moe said she would stand on a chair to scrub the hood of the grill and make it shine.

The ladies remember that the kids enjoyed tacos. They had to make thousands to feed the estimated 1,000 students attending the school at the time. Like kids today, they also enjoyed pizza.

“My favorite (food served at SFB) would have to be Salisbury steak. I have to admit, it’s better than here,” Marcella said, chuckling. “And I thought we made good slaw. I gave them the recipe here, but they don’t use it.”

Though the ladies enjoyed the food and each other’s company, they agreed that their No. 1 joy was the kids.

“We had a lot of love for them,” she said, “a lot of love.”

There were no leftovers.

“We’d use them!” Marcella said.

Leftover vegetables could be used in slaw. Additionally, teachers and lunch staff would eat. Sometimes, even the priest would come over to the school and have a bite to eat.

Moe said that once, one of the priests was spotted carrying a milk jug full of chicken soup home because he enjoyed it so much.

Marcella’s husband, Charlie, was in charge of the garbage. She laughed again, this time remembering how he had to dig through the garbage to find retainers kids had accidentally thrown away.

“Remember how they used to put the empty milk carton containers in the hall?” Marcella asked. “There was one kid who would pull the bottom rack and they would all fall — then he’d run like hell. But we would laugh with him.”

“We had a lot of fun,” Ruth said. “Remember when we had to bake a cake and forgot to put the salt in?”

“It happens!” Moe said.

Once, Marcella dropped a 50-pound chicken on her foot and broke her toe.


As the head of the cafeteria, Marcella created five menus that would rotate on a weekly basis.

Each person also had to rotate to do each job in case someone was sick.

Marcella was in charge of figuring out how much food to purchase and kept a book of expenses. Moe later took over the kitchen and said she also kept a book of expenses.

“It was a lot of hard work!” Moe said.

In later years, the cafeteria staff served the senior citizens at Borgia after the kids ate their lunch. Then, Leland Nadler’s band would play.

The ladies also had to help get ready for the fall festival. They remember preparing gigantic pots of gravy, as well as preparing other food.

Though none of the women had work advice for this generation, other than to listen to your boss, they all said they enjoyed their time at Borgia.

“There were days where I had a heck of a lot of fun,” Moe said. “I’ll tell you what — If you don’t laugh or have some good times once in a while, you’ll dread going to work.”