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Currents: mike heffernan's labor of love

Twenty-Five Years of Food and Friends

When Mike Heffernan was a sophomore at Middlebury College in the early 1980s, he sat down with his girlfriend, Karin, to talk about what he wanted to do with his life. “She asked me what makes me happy,” Mike says, “and I told her, my family. I come from a big family with seven brothers and sisters, and I love when we get together. There are always dinners and potlucks and my mom's cooking, and everything's happening. Karin said, 'Oh, food! Maybe that's something that would interest you because food brings people together.'”

The memory of that exchange is vivid now, in 2011, as this year Mike celebrates both his 25th wedding anniversary with Karin and 25 years as the Dining Services manager for Colby-Sawyer College. Their long-ago conversation led Mike to seek a part-time job in Middlebury's dining hall, a job he enjoyed and learned from. In his senior year, he did an internship with Middlebury's Dining Services Director Gary Starr, who recommended that Mike look into working for SAGA, then one of the nation's best food service companies. After graduation, he interviewed with SAGA (now called Sodexo), which soon led to full-time food service positions in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Along the way, Mike learned most facets of the food business, from washing dishes to preparing, cooking and serving food, and at age 24 he became dining hall manager at Chamberlayne Junior College in Boston. Two years later, when Mike was invited to interview at Colby-Sawyer College just days before his wedding, he jumped at the chance to return to the kind of rural environment that he and Karin had come to love as college students.

When Mike arrived on campus to start his new job in the summer of 1986, he was just back from his honeymoon out west and in Hawaii. The dining hall was hopping with Gordon Research conferees and Elderhostel participants to feed, weddings on Saturdays and catering jobs in between. “We joked that the honeymoon was somewhat over,” he says. “We were booked. The college's enrollment was about 350 then, and we were trying to utilize the place as much as possible.”

That fall, Mike met the students, all women then, who often showed up for breakfast in their pajamas. He made time to greet the students and get to know each one by name. “My strengths, I think, are in relationships,” he says. “With 350 students, I could get to know everyone, and I've always encouraged the staff to do the same.”

Mike's goal of befriending every student is harder to achieve today, with an enrollment of more than 1,100 students and more office work to attend to than ever, but he hasn't stopped trying. On a frigid day last December, with hundreds of hungry first-year students converging on the dining hall at once after their Pathway seminars, Mike placed himself near the long lines, smiling at, greeting, hugging and talking with students.

To add to the chaos, it was Local Focus Day, a new event in the dining hall at which nearby farmers and vendors hand out fresh apples and hot cider, soy milk shakes and roasted nuts, nacho chips and ice cream. Students even fed their scraps to two ravenous piglets in a pen.

Mike remained unfazed. “This is what I do,” he said, breaking into a big smile and throwing up his hands. “I try to make sure everyone's okay.”

A Home Away from Home

While Mike would prefer to be “on the floor” in the dining hall, his position requires more office time now for juggling budgets and generally managing operations and personnel. He often just “gets out of the way” and lets the staff, whom he fondly calls “foxholers,” run the show.

“I've been so blessed with a team of professionals that you'd want to take into battle with you,” Mike says. “At times, that's what it's like, but everybody works together, and no matter what, we get the meal out.” In recent years, the foxholers have waged behindthe- scenes battles during storminduced power outages to deliver memorable meals by candlelight. “They're miracle workers; the kind of people who get an adrenaline rush from stress and turn their nervous energy into something positive,” he adds.

Over the years, some dining hall staff members have risen to celebrity status on campus. Michie Bickford, who baked her special sticky buns and donuts for more than 30 years, set the standard for creating the “home away from home” environment for students that Mike strives for. “She really cared about our students,” he says, “and tried to make the dining hall feel as comfortable and welcoming as their kitchens at home.”

These days, Goldie Burroughs and Teresa “Momma T” Gallagher, as well as many other dining hall foxholers, treat students much like their own children. Momma T, who like Mike, has received the college's coveted “Employee of the Year” award, often sings while bustling around the dining hall and gives special attention to students in times of need, driving them to airports and inviting them to her house for special homemade dinners. Baker Julie Alexander presides over the cookie-decorating table a few times a year, beaming as students coo over cookies she has made from her own mother's recipes.

“Hopefully, over the years, our students have felt well cared for,” Mike says. “I think—hope— that's what sets us apart. We're a small and intimate enough college for our staff to have the chance to really get to know our students.”

The Eternal Optimist

In 25 years, Mike has had just four office managers, whose biggest job, he jokes, has been to manage him. In separate interviews, his previous office manager, Becky Bense, now the operations manager, and current manager, Niki Curtis, both described Mike as the nicest, most positive and optimistic person they've ever known.

“The food business can be stressful, but nothing shakes him up,” says Niki. “He does whatever needs to be done—washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, filling the milk. He's handson all day, every day.”

Whenever Becky and Niki hit rough patches in their own lives, Mike quietly supports them, just as he does all of his staff. On the day Becky had to put her beloved dog down, she called in weeping to say she'd come home to find the toilet leaking into her basement. Soon after, Mike showed up at her house with ammonia and a mop to clean up the mess. When Niki feels anxious or down, she says, “Mike always finds a way to turn it right around.”

Truly, Mike's greatest strengths are his personal skills and love of people, along with a devotion to students that transcends the dining hall. On many nights he returns to campus to watch students' athletic competitions or attend art exhibitions and theatre and dance performances. The night before Thanksgiving break he showed up at a women's volleyball game simply because most community members had left town and he wanted “someone to be there to support the girls.”

Yet, Mike describes himself as both a people person and an introvert, one who both thrives on and is exhausted by constant social interaction. He regularly works out at the gym to build strength and release aggression, a regime that steels him against stress and the inevitable times when things go wrong.

The Same, but Different

Over the years, the dining hall has changed, for better and for worse. Decades ago students were excited when pizza or burgers appeared on the menu every other week; now these foods are served almost daily.

“The sheer volume and choices of meals has taken away some of the specialness of certain foods,” Mike admits. “The simple pleasures used to be embraced by everyone, and now that we've standardized this stuff, it's no longer special. We look for more exotic ways to change the menus, but I find students still like the simple comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese—which warms them up when they come in from the breeze on the windy hill.”

In response to students' requests and current trends, the dining hall offers more “made to order” meals, fresh fruit and other healthy choices, including locally sourced foods. “I'm happy to say there's a move away from convenience foods, though students still want their chicken nuggets,” Mike notes.

The trend Mike finds most disconcerting is that while the dining hall stays open all day now, students spend less time there than ever. “These students, their pace of life is going so fast, they're not slowing down to enjoy their meals and conversation,” he says. “I think the biggest problem for students regarding food and health is that they're wolfing their food down and not taking time to digest it.”

At a time when many of his lifelong friends are in their fourth or fifth careers and wondering what to do next, Mike calls himself “the luckiest man in the world.” Each year he gets to meet amazing new students, and he feels deeply grateful to a college that honors his primary commitment to his family and treats him and his staff as partners who provide vital services for the community every day.

Still, Mike can't help but notice that times are changing; it's December and he's still meeting students for the first time. “I apologize and say, 'I should know you by now.' We want to get to know people, and if students feel we don't, that's a loss,” he says.

Even as the college grows and changes, Mike and the dining hall staff want to know each and every student. And it seems that students, even those who graduated long ago, want to be known and remembered. This past fall alumna Erica Wells Leighton '97 visited the dining hall with her two young sons after hearing that Mike was still here on campus. After Mike hugged her and said, “Great to see you, Erica!” she smiled and called out to her boys: “I told you he'd remember my name!”

-Kimberly Swick Slover