February 26, 2009 in Washington Voices

Veteran lunch lady retires apron

Cancer survivor known for bubbly personality
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

During her retirement party Friday, Rogers High cook Cheryl Steward receives a hug from Jan Mellon. Steward has worked as a baker and cook for Spokane Public Schools for 30 years.
(Full-size photo)

It’s not really surprising that Cheryl Steward went to clown school, mostly because her personality is just that bubbly and bright, but also because she makes people smile.

On Friday, Feb. 20, co-workers new and old, friends and staffers from schools all over Spokane Public Schools District joined to celebrate Steward’s almost 30 years in food service and send her off to retirement.

“What am I going to do when I retire?” Steward asked, with a big bright smile on her face. “Oh, I’m going to sit at home and read books and eat bonbons.”

That’s not very likely, said her co-workers and friends.

“The reading part I believe, but she’s just so outgoing – I don’t think she’ll be sitting around much,” said Diane Hardesty, the cafeteria manager at Rogers High School, and Steward’s boss for the last six years. “Cheryl is the most positive person ever. And she’s the best baker ever.”

Steward began working in school kitchens in 1980. Since then, she’s been at several different Spokane schools. At Lincoln Heights Elementary School, she took the students into the kitchen – class by class.

“We just got them in there and got them baking,” Steward said.

Her favorite things to bake are hamburger buns and cinnamon rolls.

“That may sound silly, but I just love making those,” Steward said.

Over the years, many a teacher has asked for an extra dozen or so of Steward’s cookies.

“They’d have cookie exchanges and sometimes they’d ask me for extras,” said Steward, who used to bake five different kinds of cookies for her students, every day.

And there was no pre-made cookie dough involved in that production.

“I believe in cookies from scratch and I’ve always loved baking them,” Steward said, followed by a burst of her contagious laughter. Her favorites are chocolate chip cookies and snicker doodles.

“We used to do a lot more baking than we do now,” Steward said.

She’s always had a good connection with the students, something that became very obvious when she faced breast cancer … twice.

“I had a double mastectomy,” said Steward. “It was a difficult time. I got divorced, then got breast cancer and then later the cancer came back. I went through radiation, the whole deal.”

She even put clowning aside.

“I just love being a clown, but the divorce and all that just kind of burst my bubble,” Steward said.

At her retirement party, she was sporting a pink shirt that read “tackle breast cancer” and many of her friends wore the same, some with matching pink hair.

“The football team here came out in these shirts one time,” Steward said. “They know my story and I think all the students became more aware of me as a person, because they knew I had cancer.”

In March, Steward will have been cancer-free for nine years.

“Yes, isn’t that something?” she said, beaming, in between hugs and greetings.

Teachers, staff and students all lined up to wish Steward well, sending her from hug to hug.

“She knows everybody, she’s just so happy,” said Hardesty, standing back a bit, watching the well-wishers. “I don’t know what else to say about her. She’s so happy and everyone knows and enjoys her. We are gonna miss her so much.”

Looking back at nearly 30 years in area school kitchens, Steward said she wouldn’t change a thing. “I never regretted being a lunch lady.”

Reach Pia Hallenberg Christensen at 459-5427 or piah@spokesman.com


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