Newton County Senior Center cook Mary Clemons no doubt is spending her Thanksgiving doing what she does everyday at work -- cooking a delicious meal. She says it's a calling and there's "nothing hard" about serving people. She plans to retire the end of this month. - Staff photo by Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Mary Clemons is a professional cook who is going to hang up her spoon and spatula at the end of this month. She's been using them for at least 46 years on the job and longer than that for her family and vows that in retirement she's going to cook "as little as I can."
Clemons, 77, works in the kitchen of the Newton County Senior Center where she oversees meals served for the Meals on Wheels program -- approximately 60 each weekday -- as well as the congregant meals at the center -- which accounts for about 25 to 40 meals, depending on what she's serving.
She's been working at the Senior Center for eight years because her first retirement didn't take. That was when she retired from the Newton County School System Food Service after 38 years on the job. She worked at Ficquett Elementary School for seven years, at East Newton Elementary for five years and the rest of the time she managed the cafeteria at Cousins Middle School.
She definitely knows her way around a kitchen.
"I just really love to cook. Once upon a time, yeast rolls was my favorite thing to cook at school and peanut butter cookies, but since we're not in that field here (at the Senior Center), I just do vegetables mostly," she said, adding that she still enjoys working. "Work is only as hard as you make it. If you enjoy what you do, you can make it joyful. I really enjoy it. My calling is serving people and when you do what you are called to do, it's nothing hard."
The mother of three grown children, she has 13 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren and they all live nearby so when there are leftovers at Granny's house, they don't last long.
"My family thinks I can't cook a little and I really don't. If I have over-plus at home, we always have someone to take care of it," she said with a chuckle.
Despite her culinary skills, she found it sometimes took a little psychology to coax school children to eat.
"One thing about children, if one will eat something, they can draw another," she said. "You had to make it good enough for enough of them to like it in order to draw enough of them to make your percentage go up," she recalled. "It was trying and you had to work at it and that was one of the things that made me like it because it was a challenge."
Clemons said the youngsters liked spaghetti and she was surprised at their other lunch of choice.
"They loved soup, vegetable soup, chicken noodle soup, chili. You couldn't hardly understand it, but they did. ... Soup and sandwich, maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cookie. They liked that, especially the little children. When you got up with the middle school, it was a different problem. You had to really put your thinking cap on and, after all, you had to stay within state guidelines."
And guess what the favorite meal at the Senior Center appears to be?
"You wouldn't believe it, but when I say I'm gonna make soup, that's what they all want," she said, adding that she'd heard that senior citizens are "recycled teenagers."
"The children like soup and they do, too."
The other favorite is turkey and dressing, which was served last Thursday as the seniors' Thanksgiving meal. Clemons made a special peach cobbler to go with that meal and it was gobbled up.
"They loved that," she said.
Clemons said it is gratifying to be able to participate in the Meals on Wheels program.
"A lot of people tell us when we meet them out there about how much they appreciate Meals on Wheels," she said. "Those seniors have families that are still working and families that probably don't have time to give them a nutritious meal so they are appreciative of the ones we send."
Clemons has spent most of her long working life on her feet doing hard work and she said she learned years ago the secret to not having to quit due to foot pain.
"You have to learn how to take a break and get off your feet and always wear good shoes," she said. "And don't think shoes that cost $40 or $50 are good shoes because they're not."
She recommends Rockports. Years ago she was laid up in bed with her feet giving her fits and her granddaughter came home from the Army to see about her. Before she left, her sergeant told her to find out what kind of shoes her granny was working in and to buy her a pair of Rockports.
"At that time they were $90 and my granddaughter went to a store across from Southlake Mall and bought me a pair of those shoes. And I want you to know, in about a month I could tell the difference. Within two months my feet were like new, like I had been operated on. That was 25 years ago," she said, adding that since then she's bought two pairs of new Rockports every year. She works in the new ones and uses the old ones to work in the yard.
"If you're not worth having good shoes on your feet, you're not worth anything," she said.
Born in Lancaster, S.C., Clemons lived in Hickory, N.C., and Chester, Pa., before landing in Newton County. Her husband came to town to work at Bert Adams Scout Reservation. The night they arrived, she met her future boss with the school system, the late Mrs. Rebecca Alexander who asked if she was interested in a job. For 15 years Clemons not only cooked for the school system, but cooked for the Boy Scouts as well.
Much of Clemons' philosophy of life came from her mother.
"Sometimes we don't like to hear what parents say, but when you change your life, you can look back and get those things they said. She always said, 'You do right to everybody and God will make somebody do you right.' You know, it's true. When you do right, it will follow you," Clemons said.
She said she used to live by the Old Testament law of "An eye for a eye and a tooth for a tooth," until her mother taught her better.
"I used to say, 'You killed my cat. I'll kill your dog,' but she used to tell me, 'Oh no, it doesn't work like that. Don't worry about what people do to you. You worry about what you do to them because what they do to you, they're gonna get paid for and what you do to them, you're gonna get paid for. Good or bad, you decide which end of the stick you want to be on,'" she said.
In retirement, she's looking forward to spending more time with her family, as well as working as her pastor's assistant at Zerubbabel Temple at the corner of Carroll and Walnut streets.
"I just love working for the church and telling people about the goodness of the Lord and the things he has done for me as a single parent for 17 years. ... He's always made a way. I've always had a job. I've always taken care of my children and they've grown up and gotten out in the world. He has just been wonderful. It's just amazing to see what He can do for you."
And one more thing she hopes to make time for.
"I'm a member here at the center and if the Lord allows, I'm going to come and be one of the seniors," she said.