Off the Cuff: Dorothy Johnson
Dorothy Johnson, 66 years old, grew up in Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri, the oldest of five kids. She is now the supervisor of the kitchen in Lord/Saunders, where she has worked for nearly four consecutive years, in addition to many years prior to that. She paused many times during the interview to welcome students coming in to dine with her trademark enthusiasm and warmth or, towards the end, to wish them beautiful evenings. “They’re my kids,” she explained. “Those are my kids!”
What brought you to Oberlin, Ms. Johnson?
The true reason why I came to Oberlin is that my aunt was having a little baby, and she had to go in the hospital and was very ill. So I came here saying, “Well, I just want to take care of my little cousin being born, and then I’m going see about going to Oberlin College.” I came here and I met a young man, and the next thing I knew I was calling my mom saying, “Mom, I think I’m gonna get married.”
And did you?
And I did. I got married. I have two children: a boy and a girl. And you know, they’re spoiled rotten. Because I do love young people. I should have had 20 kids. The students here at Oberlin College are just a joy to me.
How did you start working at the College?
My aunt worked here. She said, “My niece is energetic.” [She said to me,] “You ought to go and see if you can get a job at the College.” I think I was 18, going on 19. I got a job at the place called Johnson House. Back in those days we had little waitresses and waiters to serve the students. They wore black and white: little white tops and black skirts. At that time it was family style, with a bowl of potatoes, a platter with meat and a bowl of vegetables.
Wait — is Johnson House named after you?
No. I wish it was! But I worked there. Then I worked at Fairchild. All of these places now that are co-ops, I used to cook in every one of them. I didn’t just walk in here and get my supervisory job. I worked my way up to that.
Have you worked at Stevenson?
Have I worked there! I used to run it every night by myself. I wouldn’t get off until about 9 or 9:30, sometimes 10:30 [p.m.]
What exactly do you do here at Lord/Saunders?
I run this unit. I order the food, I give directions back there in the back to my staff and I just work very hard at my job. During the day I have to take my inventory, I do my production sheets and I do the time cards and all my little wrap-up reports and take them to the office. I also order for a culinary group here on campus. That’s one of my duties that was assigned to me.
Is there a history behind some of the recipes here at Lord/Saunders?
Oh yes. I was eight years old standing on a little box, watching my mother cook. And my grandfather had a restaurant, my cousin has a restaurant in Chicago [and] my uncle had a restaurant. So we grew up in that type of setting. My dad always had gardens full of fresh veggies. And we didn’t add all these things to it – preservatives, additives, fertilizer. We used the compost...let it sit over winter, and the next day my dad would take a tiller, turn it over, and plant his garden.
When I was a freshman, I was told that Lord/Saunders is the place to eat for fresh, homey, delicious food.
Well, you know I believe in fresh food. Seasonings! Fresh herbs and spices! Not everything out of a box or can. So I use loads of fresh veggies, and I get them as long as I can. Fresh, local! I love it. I treat it like it’s a home. And I use my leftovers. If I was at home and made something that was really good, I would not throw it out: I’d have it another day.
When you come into the dining room you shouldn’t have to worry, “Is that food gonna be uuugh?” I tell my kids, “We cook with love in our hearts.” And I think the more you put into anything the more gains you get in the end. And if you make one child happy, goodness gracious! I tell them to call home and tell mom that someone’s taking care of them. Tell them not to worry.
This one kid came with a little jar of okra, (pickled okra!), that the mother had sent me [because he said I was so nice to him]. Isn’t that sweet? You could just cry!
What do you love about your work?
Working here at the college has been a joy and a dream of my life since I’ve gotten started. I don’t think that you can just do something. You have to do it and you have to do it right. You have to do it well enough that someone wants to come back and see it. Somebody wants to come here [to Lord/Saunders] and eat again. Someone wants to come here and be greeted again.
I know every face in here. I don’t know their names, but I know every face that comes in that door every day, and I try to greet every one of them. When I was younger I was moving around with them. It’s just a joy when my kids come in to my unit every day.
You [kids] represent tomorrow. And some people think in their lives tomorrow never comes. But I know it’s on its way. And I am so glad to be a part of this. I always remember in the back of my mind, ‘you’re the reason we’re here!’ And we want tomorrow to be the very best it can be.
I think people should take pride in what they do, and I’m one of the ones that do. I’m not giving my kids just anything. You’re better than that. My kids need class.
What do you see as your role in Oberlin?
My ultimate goal before I retire is to make sure I’ve made an impact, to make sure I’ve made someone happy. Because you know what, students come here and they have never been away from home before. They’re frightened. And then I put my arm around these young people and I give them a hug and I say, “If you ever need anybody to talk to, please come and see Miss Johnson. My office is open, my heart is open and my arms are open.”
I’ve been here over 47 years working here on this campus and I wouldn’t trade it for nothing, I’d do it all again.
Everyone walking in sees you and smiles.
You know what, I love them too. I don’t know what it is, but my mother says, “You’re just full of love, Dorothy. Just bubbling with love.” And you know I’m her oldest child. We all believe in each other, and we have a ball when we get together. Oooo! We sing.
Do you cook together?
Oh! Do we cook together? Do we ever! We cook like you wouldn’t believe!
[To a departing student] Bye, bye darlin’! Look at that handsome guy right there, look at him! My babies, they are so bashful sometimes.