Food served with love, side of ‘balogna’

Erik Ebsen

Erik Ebsen

The type of baloney that Helen “the Larson Lunch Lady” Donley serves isn’t the kind typically served in a food line-it isn’t even the kind that goes on a plate.

Helen’s baloney is the humorous kind. It warms your heart and makes you ask for seconds.

As an 11-year Aramark veteran, she has touched the lives of hundreds of SDSU students with large helpings of her sense of humor and hospitality.

“If I didn’t come to work full of it, my kids wouldn’t know what to do,” she said.

She uses humor as a way to interact with students and make them feel good. For instance, Helen claims the pop dispensers contain moonshine. She tells students drinking too much will make their hair curl.

“Plain water’s all it is,” she smiled, “but they don’t know the difference.”

In addition to her comments and affection toward students, Helen is known for making some pretty righteous omelets.

“Her love” makes Helen’s omelets worth getting up for in the morning, said Sarah Manthey, a sophomore media productions major. How the omelets are cooked isn’t what makes them memorable. Manthey was so taken away with Helen that she forgot how the omelets tasted.

“I just remembered the experience.”

When Sarah and her suite-mate told Helen they loved her, Helen replied “I love you more honey, you aren’t going to win this one.”

The students make Helen’s job worthwhile. Ask her about her job, and she’ll go on about the students. It’s all about the smiling students walking through the door, she said. Being around them makes her happy. It’s what she enjoys most about her day.

“Kids are the most wonderful thing in the whole world. To me, they’re like angels from heaven,” she said.

Helen likes to think of the students who eat at Larson as own children. Her “kids”, she calls them. She treats them as her own as well, and wouldn’t think of working anywhere except Larson Commons.

“I got 10,000 kids and I love every one of them. My life is in this building.”

Some of those 10,000 “kids” returned some love by creating a Facebook group in her honor. “Helen the Larson Lunch Lady Fan Club” has over 340 members who rave about her omelets and the decorations she puts up during holidays.

“I think it’s sweet,” she said.

Helen buys inflatable holiday decorations herself, said Dave Menzel, Aramark’s food service director at SDSU. Once, he said an inflatable cow of Helen’s was stolen from the commons. Some students responded by putting up wanted posters asking for the cow back.

Helen is invaluable, said Menzel, because of the atmosphere she creates in the cafeteria. Students leave their comfort zone in going to college, he explained. Helen makes Larson Commons a place where that relaxed, comfortable feel of home can return.

“She sincerely cares for all students,” he said.

Helen said she enjoyed giving her kids baloney. It cheers them up and makes them smile, she said.

At a campus food service, Menzel wants employees who chatter with students and make them feel welcome. Service like that cultivates relationships and can even become a bigger drawing-point than the food. He isn’t the only one who feels that way.

Aramark Vice President Lorne Lebster met Helen during his first SDSU visit. Undaunted, Helen greeted him with her typical “How are ya, sweetheart?” Menzel wasn’t sure what his superior would say. But Lebster was impressed.

“Every campus needs a Helen,” he told Menzel. “I could use a hundred of her.”

Helen doesn’t just serve food. That’s why Menzel likes her. She gets to know every student in a personal sense. She jokes while the eggs fry. She asks how much bacon to put in instead of just tossing some in. Students respect that, and come back for it.

In fact, Menzel insisted that some students buy block food-plans not for Larson’s food, but for Helen.

Students decided they weren’t the only ones who should get a taste of Helen’s personality. A year ago, Menzel said they called her in to KELOland’s “People You Should Know.” The crew came and interviewed her in the commons.

If Helen doesn’t seen uncommon enough already, look at her home. Helen lives on Sixth Street near Pioneer Park. Various ornaments dot the outside, likening it to a Christmas tree. Helen said during the Brookings Arts Festival, visitors would ask to add things to the outside of her house.

“If they want to put it up, I let them,” she said.

She leaves all the knick-knacks decorating her home wherever the people place them. It “provides scenery,” she said.

Family is a very important part of Helen’s life. She has a son, Harvey, a daughter, Linda, and four grandchildren. Her husband, Lester, recently returned home from the hospital due to pneumonia. Helen was as characteristically optimistic about him as she is for her kids at SDSU.

That love for her family she returns to students. Everything she does at Larson is to make her students feel better. Being away from home doesn’t have to make students sad, she said.

Helen arrives at Larson at 6 a.m. every weekday to serve breakfast and lunch. Be ready. Helen has plenty of baloney in store to go on top of that omelet.

#1.884365:3116521189.jpg:Helen4.jpg:Helen Donley, commonly known as ‘the Larson Lunch Lady’, preps cheese for another hungry batch of her ‘kids’.: