By GARTH SNOW
FORT WAYNE — When Homestead High School opened in the fall of 1970, Shirley Foltz was there to collect for school lunches.
As the community grew, the school building expanded, and the student population swelled, she listened to students, collected for lunches, and became endeared to teachers and staff. When she rang up her last lunch charge early Wednesday afternoon, May 29, she was the last original Homestead employee still at her post. Over those 49 years — about 9,000 school days — she served generations of students.
“There has never been a Spartan she didn’t feed,” Phil Downs, the SACS superintendent, said upon Foltz’s retirement. “She’s been here since the building opened.”
“That level of commitment and service to a community is unheard of,” Downs said. “It’s just an amazing accomplishment. And he’s such a wonderful lady and we’re going to miss her.”
Foltz, a graduate of Elmhurst High School, had worked as a bank teller before the Homestead job became available. “One of the teachers knew I was looking for a job and she said ‘Why don’t you apply at the school? And I walked in for the interview and they said you’re hired,” she said.
She collected for lunches, and then counted the money back at the office. She continued in that dual role through her 49th year at her post.
“She’s been a cashier the whole time,” said Brant Brown, SACS food service director. She also was the lunchroom bookkeeper through that last lunch.
Former students recognize her in the community. Some even have stopped by to see her when they visited the school.
Foltz did more than accept money; she listened. “I will miss the kids,” she said. “You know a lot of them have problems. They just need somebody to talk to. They need to know somebody cares. Then they like to come through here.”
“Some come back,” she said, mentioning “Biggie, the basketball player,” Homestead, Purdue and NBA athlete Caleb Swanigan. “He used to come through our line so we’d talk, and he came back once or twice. So you know the kids have enjoyed themselves, or they wouldn’t do that,” she said.
In 1970, the Homestead cafeteria operated two serving lines. The standard Type A lunch cost 55-cents. Today, the cafeteria operates 10 lines, including a Mexican food line and the salad line where Foltz worked last Wednesday. That standard lunch costs $2.50. About 2,400 students navigate the cafeteria each day.
In 1970, the cashier accepted cash. Then came weekly punch cards. Today it’s electronic deposits, or cash or check, Brown said.
Foltz does not remember what was on the menu that first day. She said few foods have fallen off the list over the years, but many have been added.
Today, students have access to soft drinks. “The pop, you were never allowed to have anything like that,” Foltz said.
Lory Kiger, who has served at the Mexican food line for two years, presented Foltz with a plush, stuffed squirrel. Kiger said if she couldn’t remember Shirley Foltz’s name she would just call her “Squirrely,” and the name just seemed to stick.
Among “the kids” to whom she has listened over the years are Foltz’s own: Scott, Homestead Class of 1976; Lisa, ’79; Todd, ’81; and Rick, ’82.
“Mom used to be able to keep track of us,” Lisa said.
“For a lot of people, she’s been the lunch lady forever,” Todd said.
Both said they remember watching from a classroom as their mother approached the school in her pickup when Homestead Road was little more than a country road. If she was running late, the stop sign at Aboite Center Road might not have had the intended effect, Todd said.
Now Foltz will have more time to spend with those four former Spartans and her 12 grandchildren.
“She will relax a little bit. She likes to work in the yard,” Lisa said.
“She likes to work with the flowers and she has a lot of little trinkets around the yard,” Todd said. “And I’ve got a bunch of horses and we show horses about every weekend and she likes coming to horse shows.”
Her husband, Guy Foltz, died in 2012.
Foltz’s family was well represented at a Wednesday afternoon open house in that same cafeteria. Her co-workers stopped by in their “Lunch Lady” shirts. So did others from the school and the community.
Food services director Brown, who has been at Homestead four years, said he respects Foltz for her work ethic. “She has a great attitude, comes to work every day,” he said. “She has a great relationship with the kids. They help keep her young.
“She deserves any recognition she can get. Forty-nine years at any workplace is pretty remarkable in this day and age, and she’s been here for the right reason — to serve the kids.”
Homestead Principal Park Ginder sees Foltz’s career as a blessing to those who walked through those lunch lines. “Don’t you think it’s just amazing that somebody can work in one location 49 years?” he said. “Especially in a school environment. It can be really demanding with kids and sometimes attitudes and actions. We’re just blessed to have somebody that could spend that kind of time and invest in the community.”