AGR says goodbye to cook, friend

Tamora Rosenbaum

Helen Graslie, the woman who has made SDSU a true home-away-from-home for thousands of students in the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity over the past 23 years, is retiring after spring graduation.

“She has been like a mother to all students and alumni who have been in our fraternity and a huge asset to the experience and personal connections to all who interacted with her,” said Justin Krell, an AGR member and senior agronomy major from Blooming Prairie, Minn.

Helen feels the same way about “her boys,” and said they are like her extended family.

“I really enjoy cooking for the gentlemen here, it’s just like a family home,” she said. “I can honestly say this is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Helen looks like nothing if not a stereotypical grandmother-figure with a cloud of curly, graying hair surrounding her face and round glasses framing her kind eyes.

She arrives at the AGR house at 9 a.m. each weekday to begin preparing the buffet-line-style noon meal. Once that meal is finished and cleaned up, she leaves for a few hours in the afternoon and comes back at 4 p.m. to begin preparations for the evening meal every day, except Friday.

A couple of AGR students, the “prep team,” join her to help get everything ready for this meal. This is a responsibility that students cherish as a chance to talk to Helen.

Chris Opdahl, junior agronomy major from Slayton, Minn., has been a member of AGR for almost three years and currently serves as one of AGR’s co-stewards. As a co-steward, he is responsible for ensuring Helen has everything she needs to make meal preparation run smoothly each day, from planning the menu to ordering groceries.

“When you’re on prep you get to work alongside her. It makes it fun building that relationship,” Opdahl said.

Helen prepares enough food every day, twice a day, for up to 50 hungry young men who grew up on farms. Opdahl said AGR spends approximately $5,000 to $6,000 a week on food alone. Students can generally go through between 10 to 15 pounds of beef in one meal, depending on what’s on the menu. In the month of September, they consumed an entire steer.

“They don’t eat normal portions,” Helen said with a small laugh, her rosy cheeks wrinkling up into a good-natured smile. “More like one and a half.”

Other opportunities the AGR members have to interact with Helen are Tuesday nights, when they hold formal dinners. Several students come in to assist with the additional set up and during clean up after each of the twice-daily meals.

“That was the hardest thing for me to get used to, I’ve always had to do my own dishes at other jobs,” she said. “Here they come in and wash their own dishes and the pots and pans after meals.”

Opdahl and Krell said Helen cooks meals similar to what they enjoyed at home, adding that she “prepares the food with love, just like our mothers or families would when we were growing up.”

Their relationship with Helen isn’t bound to meal times. She provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the members of AGR and is always happy to talk with them about their lives.

“She really gets to know us and even our routines,” Opdahl said. “She knows when you’re sick and if you miss one of the meals you usually make, she’ll ask you where you were.”

As much as Helen worries about her boys and works to make sure everything is covered for them, lately they have had a reason to be concerned about her as well. She has been experiencing health problems with her heart.

“About a year and a half ago, she was in the hospital in Brookings. When we went to visit her and brought her flowers, she was just concerned about us and how we were,” Krell said. “Even through her sickness or whatever was going on, we were her boys and she’s always concerned about us.”

Her health issues are what ultimately led her to make the difficult decision to officially hand in her resignation.

“When I have to go in to the hospital, I feel like I’m leaving them without a cook,” Helen said. “It’s in their best interests to have someone here all the time.”

AGR is looking for someone to fill Helen’s position when she retires, but, as Opdahl said, “they are some pretty big shoes to fill.”

“Helen makes this a warm place to be, she makes it feel like home,” Krell said.

“She always greets you when you come and ask how your day is,” Opdahl said. “It’s going to definitely be a different atmosphere without her here. We will all miss her greatly.”

Helen finds it hard to imagine what she’ll do in retirement but plans to take it easy. She said she’ll keep busy baby sitting grandchildren and great-grandchildren, working as a volunteer in a nursing home and checking in on “her boys” every once in a while.

“I’ll probably be back to peek in and see what they’re doing,” she said.