By Hannah Spurrier | Photos by Casey Wagner
No matter the dining hall, there are employees quick on their feet ready to swipe your JACard or make your favorite meal, adding a little extra to your order whether it be jokes, small talk or just a little more mustard.
But past their jobs and the purple and gold, these employees share their lives outside the dining hall walls.
“I love you all,” says Gail Farnsworth, who works the day shift at Mongolian Grill in Top Dog. “You all are my adopted children.”
Farnsworth, 58, lives in Harrisonburg with her husband, Jeff, and her family of Australian Sugar Gliders — flying squirrel-like pets they have adopted over the years. At the end of the day at the cash register she enjoys going home to spend time with her family.
“I moved to Harrisonburg for my husband,” she says. Fifteen years ago, Farnsworth met her husband on the Internet. Christmas night he showed up on her porch where she was waiting eagerly for him. And ever since then, she has been happy in Harrisonburg.
At work, Farnsworth eagerly waits for the next student in line, ready to ask them about their day or tell them about her grandchildren. She serves about 300 students a day but doesn’t forget to strike up a conversation with each.
“You know me, I smile all the time,” she says. “My motto is, ‘Give a smile because you never know who might need it.’”
This is Farnsworth’s fourth year working here and has gained many memories with hundreds of students and many great employees.
“My favorite memory is when I won the costume contest at Halloween,” she says. “I dressed up as Pebbles and used a real dog bone from another employee’s car for my hair.”
Farnsworth humbly shakes off her widely known and appreciated personality and just thinks of the students.
“I want the students to know that if they need anything, they can always come to Ms. Gail.”
Shirley Burner, a 59-year-old supervising cashier at PC Dukes, is also a prominent dining hall worker on campus because of her attention to students. She is known as the cashier who knows everyone’s name.
“I don’t know how she knows everyone’s name,” senior sports management major Ryan Dunn says. “I will wait in her line just so she gets to swipe me out.”
Many students are thankful for the personalization to the checkout process.
“I had this one student named John say to me, ‘I appreciate it so much when you call me by my name,’ ” Burner says.
Outside of Dukes, she enjoys spending time with her husband of 41 years, James, in their Stanley, Va. home. “I met him as a senior in high school and we have been in love ever since.”
They’re devoted to their daughter Jessica and their two grandchildren.
“If we don’t go [visit them] every evening, it’s every other evening,” Burner says. “My husband thinks he has to call them five times a day to see how they’re doing.”
This is Burner’s fifth year. Her day starts off early when she wakes up at 5:45 a.m. to make the 45 minute trek to Harrisonburg, where she works until 4 p.m. She works during the week and offers to help out Sundays if the dining hall needs it.
“I try to keep Saturday my day,” Burner says. “I enjoy going to church with my family.”
At work, though, she appreciates the encounters that begin with a reach for the JACard — usually about 300 of them a day.
“My favorite thing about working here are the students,” Burner says. “I haven’t had one rude one yet.”
And the students give back to her.
“I keep this box in my van. Students give me [thank you] cards over the years and I put them in there so I can always keep them. I have about 15 total.”
Steven Meyer is known as the guy who quizzes people in line for food at D-Hall. He prefers to give a little extra back to the students — with his singing and jokes.
“This is going to sound corny, but, I swear, I like to see my customers smile and know I did a good job,” Meyer, 27, says. “Whether they win or lose [the trivia] I enjoy the surprised look on their face when someone is willing to talk to them.”
During 1787 Orientation, Meyer recalls a moment when he lifted the spirits of a FrOG with a Disney quiz.
“Her favorite Disney movie was ‘The Princess and The Frog’ ” and she wanted to be the princess in it. I told her, ‘You have a frog on your shirt so you’re halfway there!’”
Meyer is from New Market and has worked here for seven years. He now works in the deli — a change from the dessert station where his trivia became famous. Although the trivia has died down after the switch, he still enjoys talking to students and making food with a homemade touch.
“Now I can make students sandwiches,” Meyer says. “It’s special to them because they think, ‘I can have a sandwich with my friends. It’s just like home.’ ”
Meyer enjoys watching old movies like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Swamp Thing 1 & 2.” Steven also watches Comedy Central videos on YouTube, where he gets some of his material, and alters it for dining hall-appropriate jokes.
“I’m always looking for new ways to tell jokes,” he says. “I change the wording so it’s not as rough for new material for some of my questions.”
Also in D-Hall is 74-year-old Flo Howell, who has worked here for 12 years.
Despite the lunchtime rush this five-foot tall lady works through most days, she likes to take a few extra seconds to add a little more “something” — mustard, lettuce, pickles — just to spice up a plain order.
“I love making sandwiches. They’re easy, and the students say what they want, and a lot of time I add a little extra on it to make it special for them,” Howell says.
After a long day at work, Howell enjoys her downtime at home in Bridgewater.
“The first thing I do when I get home is make a big ol’ glass of iced tea,” she says.
She also enjoys drawing up a warm bath, catching up on her shows and finally falling asleep to get ready for the next day at work. Because she works hours a day on her feet, students wonder how Howell stays so upbeat, especially at a popular dining hall station that attracts upward of 500 students daily.
“They ask me: ‘Don’t you ever frown?’ I tell them, no, because I like what I’m doing and I keep my problems to myself, and I talk to them and make them enjoy their sandwich.”
Yvette Grace, 50, of Festival prefers to stay positive, too.
For five years, Grace worked the cash register where students know her as the lady who asks, “Can I see your meal please?” directing them to open their food containers.
Although students may be a little intimidated by her, Grace’s main concern is making students feel comfortable.
“People tell me I will be remembered for my loud voice,” she says. “But really, I just want the students to come back.”
Grace is from Page County, Va. but currently lives in Deer Run. Her daughter Roschelle, 24, used to work in Festival as a Crepes Supervisor. Her other daughter died.
Now her sixth year, she works in the Burger Studio, a change from her cashier’s position. After her 11 to 2 shift at Festival, she works at RR Donnelley’s from 5 to 10:30 to make a little more money for the family.
“I switched to the day shift at Burger Studio so I could work two jobs,” Grace said. “I get back at 11 at night, go to bed, and it is already time for the next day of work.”