Jennie’s day in the sun

South Huron DHS’ cafeteria operator reflects on turning 80 and the funeral celebration she wanted to be alive to see

Jennie Rowe on her 80th birthday
Jennie Rowe has run the South Huron District High School cafeteria for more than 40 years, along with other food enterprises including the cafeteria at the Exeter canning plant, the booth at the arena and the pool, and catering local events.
Rowe turned 80 May 22nd, and the school has named the cafeteria in her honour. Then her “fabulous” kids (Kathy, Bob, Jim, Lori, and Jeff, and an “add-on”, Dale) threw her a three-day party to celebrate the milestone.

As told to Casey Lessard

I have always worked where there has been food. Beaver Foods had the service here (at South Huron) and when I went to apply for the job, someone called me and told me that they thought this would be the job for me. I went to see this guy, and he was a tyrant. I thought, I can’t work for this guy.
But by the end of that school term, the board came to me and asked me if I would take it on and I said yes. At that time, I did work for the board, but after about a year, the board wanted to walk away from it, and they said it was mine. It became my own enterprise. We didn’t even have a contract; it was just by word of mouth back then.
Ten years ago, the board came and said that all of the contractors had to buy what was in the kitchen, and I said I wasn’t afraid to buy. Everything in the kitchen belongs to me, and it’s my little corner in the school.
I’ve only had a contract with the board for the last ten years, and it’s renewed every five years. It runs out this August. I talked to one of the other contractors and we haven’t heard what’s going to happen. But I’m not going to let them take it away from me. If they have to buy everything in the kitchen, I’m going to price it so high that nobody will want to buy it.
I don’t do it for fame or glory. This is my life. One time I realized that I could cook anywhere. I can’t meet these kids otherwise. So it’s basically all about the kids. And I have had the most amazing employees. Whether they were students or grown women, they have made me what I am today.

Jennie Rowe on her 80th birthday
I used to feed the multitudes for the Sportsman’s Dinner, and Lincoln Alexander was one of the invited guests. They had just built the arena, and they said, “Jennie, we will be touring the arena, and we would like to show him the kitchen facilities.”
I said, well, I run a pretty ship most of the time, but give us a little warning before you come. They said they’d be bringing him in around 5 p.m..
Well, at 3:40, the kitchen door opens and who walks in but Bruce Shaw and Lincoln Alexander. I had buckets on the counter and Jennie has her arms elbow deep in coleslaw. I said, Excuse me, sir.
I washed my hands and shook his hand, and said, You caught me at a very inopportune time.
He looked at the bucket and said, “Not being a cook, I can’t imagine mixing coleslaw in that amount any other way.”
Now I had battled with the Lions because dinner we always served it country style so people could take what they wanted. They said, We want the head table served on a plate. I said no. I said, He’s human like us, and I’m going to give this man an opportunity to put on his plate what he wants. They didn’t think that was the right idea, but they went along with it.
He came back in and commented and said, “It was kind of nice to be able to put what I wanted on my dinner plate.” I didn’t ask him if he had any coleslaw.

Despite the fact that I’m 80 and people ask me when I’m going to retire, well, I’m widowed now and what do you do? What would I do if I retired? I think I’d be totally lost without it. Anyone that can work should, if your health is good and you’re in a position that you can. I feel too vibrant yet to want to go home and sit on the back deck. Because I live such a busy life, I don’t bowl, I don’t golf, I don’t curl. What do I have left?
When you look at the people in the Villa or the hospital, they get stuck there. It’s not that family doesn’t love you, but they’re busy with their lives. Kids move on.

Jennie Rowe on her 80th birthday
I don’t think people realize the lonely hours. That’s why I said I would go to the hospital, if only to wash their hair, massage a little oil on their arms, read their cards, or whatever. Watching my mother go downhill, I said, Mom, what do you want? Do you want me to read to you? She said, “No.” Do you want me to rub your back? “No.” She closed her eyes, and I know the first two lines to most songs, so I just sang some songs to my mom. The next time I came back, she said, “Thank you for singing all those songs to me. I heard you.” This is what people need. When the day comes that I have to move out of here, I hope that I’m healthy enough and still able to go and do that for someone else.
Every day is a day in the sun for me. Be it a phone call from someone just to talk, or someone popping in the back door with a coffee in their hands from Timmy’s or whatever. The kids at the school and how they respond in conversation with me; the things they ask of me, they think it’s me that’s giving, but it’s them that’s giving because they’re doing me a favour that they care enough about me that they want me in their lives.

My husband Elmer died four years ago of a heart attack. He was 76. He always said, “Jennie, when I die, don’t have a flowery splash. Tell people to come in their work clothes and just have a good time.” Elmer liked his Scotch, so he said to line up a bar full of Scotch and everybody had to have one drink of Scotch on Elmer.
We had it at our farm and people were told to dress casual. Some came dressed up. My kids came in shorts and sandals because it was the 15th of June. Our son Jeff got up and spoke, and people said the comments he made about his dad sounded more like he was roasting him. I said, Then you didn’t know Elmer, because that’s exactly what he would have expected. But he wasn’t there to celebrate.
When you die, they always say they’re going to celebrate your life, but you’re not there anymore. You’re gone. I decided that after making all the arrangements for my funeral and for celebrating Jennie’s life, I decided I wanted to be part of it. I wanted a great big tent open to whoever wants to come, there would be loud music playing (ABBA), there would be an abundance of good food to snack on, and just lots of love and friendship. I wanted to be part of that. Not a dead body.
A one day deal turned into three days. It was lucky that my birthday was on a Friday. If they had done this when I died, I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy it. I highly recommend this. Think about it. I said to my kids, when I die, bury me. That’s all. This is my day in the sun.