In south Louisiana we say “I love you” with a shared meal and a kind word. Think of your grandmother’s red beans and rice enjoyed with extended family or that pot of homemade chicken noodle soup served up when the flu set in. Food is as much a part of our culture as Mardi Gras and purple and gold.
For the past 24 years, a very special lady has shared this type of love with the students, staff and visitors of Episcopal. It’s difficult to convey the impact of someone like Mary Johnson or “Mrs. Mary” as she’s affectionately known across campus. On any given day you can find Mrs. Mary meticulously preparing meals for her second family. However, as is true with many southern cooks, there is so much more going into every chop of a cucumber and every stir of her homemade dressing. Mrs. Mary puts her heart into everything she does.
Mrs. Mary has spent years nourishing and nurturing students. You can see her watching and anticipating student needs when they arrive for their meals. You can find her pouring yogurt into tiny cups, perfectly sized for small hands. The personal greetings and quiet encouragement she shares with students make the school cafeteria feel more like one’s home dining room, providing a sense of safety and strength. Sitting in the cafeteria with a harmonica-playing coach and students and teachers dressed like super heroes, you quickly realize that Mrs. Mary’s domain is a hub of the school. It is here in Webster Refectory that students’ minds are fueled in preparation for learning and exploring.
When asked about her long tenure at Episcopal Mrs. Mary says, “I just love it”. What’s apparent is that the students and staff love her too. For Mrs. Mary’s birthday this year, the PreK-4 students brought her a cupcake and sang her a song. At one of the fall band concerts, Mrs. Mary was spotted happily dancing alongside a student. Seniors ask her to sign their senior shirts each May. At this fall’s Homecoming game, former students (who are now adults) couldn’t wait to hug Mrs. Mary or tell her hello. Even after all this time and the thousands of students she’s interacted with, she still remembers most of them by name.
There is a special bond among Mrs. Mary and her colleagues. She is a mentor, role model and mother figure for many on campus. Her confidence and talents are also a sense of immense pride for her team.
“She’s one-of-a-kind,” says Kenndra Lewis.
“She’s a rock,” says Charity Washington.
“You can’t mess with perfection,” says Chef Patrick Mahon.
Mrs. Mary is generous with her knowledge and more than happy to help. “Mrs. Mary took me under her wing. She calls me every morning on the way to work,” says Natasha “Tasha” Lemon, who has worked with Mrs. Mary for eight years. Tasha says Mrs. Mary is truly a joy to work with and that she has learned a lot thanks to her guidance. There is a camaraderie among the team that only comes from working together for years to achieve a common goal. In this case, it’s sharing their love with home-cooked meals.
Mrs. Mary says she learned to cook from her grandmother, but she never actually imagined that it would be her career. At Scotlandville High School she was a cheerleader and loved to dance – something she still enjoys to this day. Her first foray into the food industry was at LSU, where she worked for 10 years before joining the Episcopal community.