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Beloved lunch lady hangs up her spatula

STARKSBORO — In 1965, Lyndon Johnson was president, Apollo 11 had yet to land on the moon, a first-class stamp cost a nickel and a gallon of gas 31 cents.
It was also the year Joyce Shepard started working as a cook at Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary School. She retired in this past summer, after 48 years.
“I just liked working with the kids,” Shepard said. “It kept me young.”
Principal Patrick Hartnett likened Shepard’s tenure to that of a baseball Hall of Famer.
“She’s the Cal Ripken of school cafeteria work,” he said, referring to the longtime Baltimore Orioles infielder who set the Major League record for consecutive games played. The school on Wednesday hosted a special event to celebrate Shepard’s long tenure, which officially ended at the close of the last school year.
Shepard, now 85, was born Joyce Beshaw on Feb. 7, 1928, in North Hero. She was the third youngest of her 10 siblings, and did not attend school past the 8th grade.
Beshaw met Lyle Shepard while he was still in the Army, after he returned from fighting in Europe during World War II. They married in 1947, when Joyce was 19 years old.
Later that year, the couple’s first child, Alan, was born. Shepard would have two more sons — Stanley in 1949 and Jeffrey in 1958.
After living in Burlington, the couple moved to Lyle’s native Starksboro in 1963. Lyle worked at Burlington Electric.
“My sister-in-law, Rollande Shepard, worked in the school nine years and she was leaving, and when she was done she asked me to take over her job,” Shepard said.
In September 1965, Shepard started in the kitchen. She made $15 a week.
Shepard said the job was convenient for her, and fit her sons’ schedule. Robinson Elementary is about a hundred yards down the road from Shepard’s home, on Route 116 in the heart of Starksboro.
“When my youngest one went to school, that’s when I went to work,” Shepard said. “It was close to home and my kids were at school — when they were on vacation I was on vacation, summers I had off, and I enjoyed doing it.”
After her youngest child graduated from the school, Shepard said she had no plans to leave.
“I just liked to keep busy,” she said. “I did janitor work for 15 years.”
Shepard cooked breakfast and lunch every day.
“I started with just my niece, who was handicapped,” Shepard said. “We gave her something to do and she could do it. I worked with her 15 years.”
When Shepard started in 1965, the school was smaller than it is now.
“They had two classrooms, and two rooms down in the basement,” Shepard said. “Before they added on, I cooked in the town hall for a few years. The kids walked down for lunch.”
Robinson taught children in grades 1 through 8 when Shepard started — Mount Abraham Union High School was not built until 1969. There was no kindergarten, and the student body was about half the size it is now.
In addition to her duties in the kitchen, Shepard put on sketches for students outside of lunchtime.
“We used to put on theme stories for the kids with my sister-in-law. One time we did a Western, another time line dancing.”
Shepard also organized a weekly bingo at the town hall for 30 years. The proceeds were used to buy new kitchen equipment, including a new stove.
“When I first started, the stove only had one burner,” Shepard recalled.
Shepard said she liked to make everything, but of all the meals she prepared, she said students liked pizza the best.
“Chicken and biscuits, shepherd’s pie — they liked that,” Shepard said. “I made my own rolls.”
Shepard admitted that both then and now, kids have struggled to eat their vegetables.
“When I first started, I used to go around the tables to see if the kids had tried them,” Shepard said. “But you can’t force them, so you just say ‘Try it!’”
Today, Shepard said the school places a larger emphasis on healthy foods, incorporating greens like kale.
FORMER STUDENTS
Now, she sometimes runs into former students who are now adults.
“Some of them are married and have children now,” Shepard said.
Shepard said that decades after graduating from Robinson Elementary, students remember what she used to make.
“Some kids, they’ll remember what I used to make for them and ask if I still make it,” Shepard said. “This woman asked if I still made peanut butter squares. I said no, but I made some for her and she said they tasted the same as when she was going to school. She’s got kids of her own now.”
Shepard submitted her resignation in July 2013. She said her lack of mobility prevented her from continuing to do what she loved.
Lyle Shepard passed away in 2009. He and Joyce were married 64 years.
Now, Joyce Shepard lives at home with her son, Stanley. Her other sons live close by, in Bristol and Winooski. In addition to her three children, she has four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
She cooks and reads to keep busy.
“I play cards and go to senior meals — I go gambling once in a while!” Shepard said, adding that she liked to go to the Akwesasne Casino in Hogansburg, N.Y.
Principal Hartnett, who was six years old when Shepard served her first lunch, praised her for her service.
“Joyce broke new ground. We needed new equipment,” Harnett said. “She and her husband raised funds — she really carved her own place here.”
SAD TO SEE HER GO
That sentiment was shared among the faculty.
“It was sad to hear she was unable to continue,” teacher Mary O’Brien said.
O’Brien, who started at Robinson Elementary in 1983, was thankful for the work Shepard did.
“She engaged the students in volunteer activities, like dishwashing,” O’Brien said. “She instilled a sense of responsibility in the students when they worked for her.”
The staff favorite among the dishes Shepard made were the “Tuna Pea Wiggle on saltines,” éclairs, Salisbury steak, whoopie pies and the homemade breads and rolls.
O’Brien said she eventually stopped eating breakfast at home because Shepard’s cooking was irresistible.
“Her French toast was wonderful,” O’Brien said.
At the Wednesday event, Vermont Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca was due to present Shepard with a plaque. The plaque, which reads “the kitchen that Joyce built” will hang in the school.
“I feel a little nervous,” Shepard said before the celebration. “But excited, and my kids are excited.

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