For Pine-Richland lunch lady, students are family

For Pine-Richland lunch lady, students are family

By Rick Wills
Thursday, December 27, 2007


The card was not a Hallmark.

The 1,050 signatures on Fran Leson's 70th birthday greeting never would have fit.

Leson, the cafeteria manager at Pine-Richland Middle School, was overwhelmed by the card -- about 12 feet wide and 3 feet high on poster board and signed by every student in the school.

"It's wonderful. This is a super place. Everyone here is family," said Leson, whose Christmas Eve birthday was observed at a surprise party on the last day of school before the holiday break.

Leson received 70 carnations and a mammoth birthday cake. The cafeteria's walls were covered with posters and drawings in tribute to her birthday and 38 years of work at the school.

Known variously by students as Fran, Miss Fran and Lunch Lady -- but never as Mrs. Leson -- the cafeteria boss stands 4 feet 11 inches and is shorter than more than a few of the students.

Yet as a presence at the school, she stands taller than anyone, said Kathy Harrington, principal for 14 years.

"She just is Pine-Richland Middle School. She is everyone's mother and is one of the two hardest working women I have known in my life," Harrington said.

The other, Harrington's mother, whom she called "a good, hard-working Slovak woman," was a school cafeteria manager.

Cherry Cerminara, the district's food service manager, admires Leson's work ethic. "She will get out there and work, scrubbing oven racks and cleaning ceiling vents, things no one really wants to do."

Co-workers say that while Leson can be tough and exacting, they really would never want to work for anyone else.

"We're not here for the pay. Every day goes by fast with her, and the kids just adore her," said Marilyn McFadden, one of nine cafeteria workers supervised by Leson.

Leson, who lives in Richland and is the mother of two grown children, started working part time at a district elementary school in 1968 for $1.40 an hour.

Within several years, she started working full time and worked her way up to manager.

At an age when many of her contemporaries live from pensions and savings, Leson arrives at work each day at 5 a.m. and leaves in the middle of the afternoon.

"Well, we have to get here at that hour or breakfast would not be ready in time," she said.

Late each morning, Leson calmly oversees five lunch periods that are prone to be louder, more chaotic and less predictable than the middle-aged lunch crowd at Eat 'n Park.

"She is really nice. She likes kids. And she never tells you that you can't eat, even if you forget to bring money," said Christopher Watenpool, 13, of Pine, a seventh-grader at the school.

Michael Burnham, 13, of Pine and a seventh-grader, said lunch is his favorite part of the school day.

"You get 40 minutes of free time. I like to see her, and I like to talk to my friends," he said.

Leson says she has little interest in retirement, which comes as no surprise to her friends.

"The kids keep her going. They are her life," said J.D. Praeger, a math teacher at the school.