How old would you be if you worked at Washington University in St. Louis for 53 years?
For Lorena Smith, the answer is 81.
Hired in 1962, the first job for “Ms. Smitty,” as the students know her, was slicing fruit in a South 40 cafeteria. Today, she serves creamy polenta and eggplant parmesan at the vegetarian station in the Danforth University Center. Along the way, she has prepared thousands of ham sandwiches, pulled pints of beer at the university’s long-gone campus bar and issued parking tickets.
“Some things don’t change,” said Smith, with a laugh. “There have always been parking tickets, baby, always.”
Currently employed by Bon Appetit, Smith appears to have worked on campus longer than any Washington University employee. When she arrived, there were few African-American employees and minimum wage was only $1.15 per hour. But Smith, newly divorced, needed a job to support herself and her toddler son. And working on a college campus seemed like fun.
“Those students could be wild,” Smith recalled. “Back then, they had panty raids in the dorms.”
Smith earned her nickname when she transferred to the Washington University Police Department in the early 1970s. One of two female employees, she patrolled buildings and issued the aforementioned tickets. She liked the work but returned to food service after a few years.
More on Ms. Smitty
Favorite foods to cook: Despite decades in food service, Smith has never worked as a cook. But she prepares meals for the sick. Her specialities: fried chicken, potato salad and mixed greens.
Her faith: Smith worships at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. “Depend on God and he will open doors for you,” she said.
Advice to students: “Be honest and be nice and you will make it in this world. Don’t ever think that you’re better than anyone else.”
“I’ve done it all,” Smith said. “I would go to three buildings in one day. I would start at Holmes Lounge and wrap cookies, and then go to (now demolished) Prince Hall and then end up at the Women’s Building. I also worked as a supervisor for 15 years at the Rathskeller. It was fun there.”
Located in Umrath Hall, the now-shuttered and much-beloved “Rat” was home to Rat burgers and beer. It closed 13 years ago. Were fake IDs a factor?
“No,” Smith said. “They were smart. They would send someone in with a real ID.”
‘Be honest, be nice’
Smith was born in Selma, Alabama, the second-youngest of eight siblings. Her mother died when Smith was 4, leaving the older siblings to care for the younger ones. Smith started working at age 10, washing dishes in a white woman’s home. Sometimes, Smith would accompany the woman to Mississippi to visit her sister.
“I remember she would bring food to the back of the bus for me,” Smith said. “We would go to the beach in Biloxi and I would babysit all of the children.”
Smith still likes looking after young people. She calls Washington University students “her kids.”
“The university has changed enormously, but the students are still the same,” Smith said. “Well, they don’t party as much. They seem more mature, more grown up. I have always respected them and they have always respected me.”
Most, at least. There are those students who fail to say thank you or snatch the plate from Smith. She does not abide such rudeness.
“I tell them that attitude is not going to get it,” Smith said. “I will say, ‘When you have time, you come back and talk to me.’ Some do, some don’t.
“I remember one who did and I told him, ‘You will have a hard time in life if you treat people that way.’ And he turned out to be the best kid. He told me, ‘You changed my life.’ They need to learn those lessons here, too.”