When Helen Barber got the news, she really couldn’t quite believe what she heard.
“They told me I had worked 50 years as of October 17th, and I said, ‘What? Where did you get that?’ They said it was right there in front of them (on paper). I thought, ‘Where did it go?’ ”
The Medical Lake native celebrated her 50th year of working for the state of Washington this month. She works in the food service area at the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women in Medical Lake.
“I’ve always worked in the food service line,” said Barber, 78. “Always. I never worked on the wards or the units or anything like that. My whole career has been in food service.”
She began her career for the state in 1954 at Eastern State Hospital. From there, she went to work at the Interlake School before retiring in 1982, along with her husband, Bobby, who was a heavy equipment operator at Eastern State Hospital.
“I just went to work and enjoyed the day,” Barber said. “We raised two children and we just went on with our lives. We came onto 30 years and we retired. We were both kind of sorry we did retire that early because we were young and could have continued working.”
The retirement didn’t last long.
“When I worked for DOC (Department of Corrections), I had a friend that I worked with at Interlake School,” Barber said. “She asked me if I’d like to come to work for DOC, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Yeah. Why? Do you need somebody?’ She said, ‘Sure. Come on out tomorrow.’ I went out there and the supervisor interviewed me and I was hired the next day. Just like that. I’ve been with them ever since.”
That was in 1988, and she has been an intermittent adult correctional cook since that time, much to the relief of her supervisors.
“She’s incredible,” said Lynda Davis, senior cook at Pine Lodge. “She can outwork anybody that works here now. I’m less than half her age and she exhausts me just watching her. She doesn’t sit down for more than five minutes at a time and it’s hard to get her to do that.
“The offenders give her a lot of respect, kind of like a grandmother,” Davis said. “It’s not like they look at her as a relative, but they always give her the utmost respect because of not just her age, but her pleasant demeanor. She doesn’t have to get gruff or mean to get things done. Everybody that works with her just loves her. She’s very popular. She’s just a really exceptional person.”
Barber isn’t planning to quit working anytime soon, but when she does leave, eating at the facility will never be the same.
“It would be a big void,” Davis said. “Most of the people you get are young, and they want the full-time paycheck. They don’t want a few hours here or a few hours there. When you call for them, they may not be available, whereas Helen is extremely dependable. Whenever you need her, she’s there. When she comes in, if there isn’t cooking things to be done, she’s cleaning or getting the offenders motivated to make sure the kitchen is spotless. There’s always something to do, so she’s really good about getting things moving.”
“I’ve just enjoyed it, working with different people and meeting people,” said Barber. “I have worked ever since I was 13 years old and I just enjoy working. That’s why I’m still working. It keeps me out of the house. I just like to see people. That’s it. I just like to get out and do something. I probably won’t be working too much longer, but I just don’t know.”