COLLBRAN – Far from the neon lure of fast food and smack-dab in the middle of prime Grand Mesa farming country, a rural school is celebrating an unlikely hero today: a lunch lady named Betty Lou Hawkins.
Betty Lou died seven years ago, but enduring love for her cinnamon rolls, her baked ham and cheese sandwiches, her cowboy stew and her homemade hamburger buns is very much alive. In an era when many schools have turned to serving pizza and tacos from chain joints and pre-fab commodity hot dishes, Betty Lou’s decades-long commitment to fresh, from-scratch lunches lives on in this rural school of 320 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students.
Thursday has been declared Betty Lou Hawkins Day at the Plateau Valley District 50 school, the first in what’s intended to be an annual celebration. The cafeteria is decorated with posters of Betty Lou memorabilia and photos. A display of state-recommended recipe cards from her 40-plus years as head cook is pinned on one wall. Two of her most beloved school lunch items are on the lunch menu. A few of Betty Lou’s relatives will be special guests at lunch.
This tribute to gone-but-not-forgotten Betty Lou, who former Plateau Valley students recall as a stern but loving fixture in the cafeteria kitchen, began last month with a favorite-food contest.
Former students were asked to rummage through their memories for their favorite Betty Lou lunch items and to submit each vote with a $5 donation that would go toward augmenting the school’s fresh-food supplies. The winner, with 78 votes, was a baked sandwich that Betty Lou called a Monte Cristo. Her version is ham and cheese baked between two layers of rolled dough. To this day, eyes roll and lips smack when former students talk about the Monte Cristo. Cowboy Stew came in second. Third-place was Betty Lou’s cinnamon rolls.
“Oh, that sandwich was my favorite,” Bert Hill said of the Monte Cristo. He grew up eating Betty Lou’s lunches until he graduated in 1985. For the past 12 years, he has been teaching fifth grade at the school.
Former student Amy Marcelle Bellotti, who runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in northern Italy, weighed in on a Plateau Valley Facebook Page commenting that Betty Lou’s homemade hamburger buns “will always be an unbeatable flavor memoria.”
Former student Becky Nostrand Goodwin gave Betty Lou’s cinnamon rolls all-caps love: “BEST EVER!!!!!”
Betty Lou was a very early adoptor of the waste-not mantra
The tiny 5-foot-1 inch spitfire of a worker who devoted half her life to feeding school kids tasty, nutritious lunches, likely would have been embarrassed by this special day in her honor, her former students and coworkers say. But she would have been tickled that the contest raised $878 to help feed the students in a closed-campus cafeteria where meals come with lessons in nutrition and eliminating waste.
Uneaten food goes into what Betty Lou used to call “the slop bucket” and is now weighed every day. The kids are apprised of how well they are doing on not wasting food.
At a recent lunchtime, many of the old-style plastic trays with indents for differing foods were scraped clean before they went on the dirty dish table. Quite a few students had asked for seconds of a popular chicken pesto pasta dish. Some even requested more of the seasoned, roasted broccoli. And a majority grazed at the well-stocked salad bar.
The cafeteria features rotating educational displays of foods that demonstrate how much sugar or fat is in everyday off-the-shelf food items. Lesson spoiler: flavored yogurt can contain more sugar than a Twinkie.
Other cafeteria displays show off baskets of seasonal produce that local farmers donate to the school.
At this time of year, donations have dwindled to boxes of heirloom potatoes and squashes lining a hallway outside the kitchen. The freezer is still stacked with bags of frozen beets and chopped zucchini and breads made from zucchini and pumpkins.
Current head cook Tammy Entwhistle̶ — another dynamo in the world of school lunches̶ — can take credit for keeping up on the fresh-food push, and for dreaming up Betty Lou Hawkins Day.
“I thought ‘let’s do something fun. People can put their money where their stomach is and we can target the funds for more fresh stuff,” Entwhistle said.
Those extra funds are important, she pointed out, when schools are allotted $3 per student in government funds for each lunch that must include a grain, a vegetable, a fruit, a dairy item and a meat or a meat alternative.
The Colorado School Nutrition Association, called the Colorado School Food Service Association in Betty Lou’s day, had recommendations on how to do that. Old recipe cards show menus that, had Betty Lou followed them to the letter, would not have accounted for her enduring popularity: liver creole, prune whip, jellied eggs and tomatoes, lima bean casserole.
Betty Lou wasn’t known to use recipes much. Her culinary how-tos were in her brain. But she did keep a metal recipe box that still sits in one corner of the kitchen. The box, sticky from years of use, has food service association recipes as well as some in Betty Lou’s handwriting. Desserts take up the most space in the packed box: Blueberry Muffins. Miracle Whip Cake. Applesauce Cake. There are multiple recipes for cinnamon rolls, although Entwhistle doesn’t think any of them nail down Betty Lou’s exact recipe.
“Oh, do I have fond memories of her being in here. Betty Lou was here to do the job. And she did it so well,” said Sammi White, who was drawn from the school’s front office to the whirlwind of activity in the kitchen to remark on the enticing scent of the lunch. White graduated from Plateau Valley in 2003 and now works as the office secretary.
Betty Lou Hawkins was 80 when she died of cancer in 2015. Her life had given her many reasons to be a bit brusque.
She was the youngest of eight children who packed together into a one-bedroom cabin with a kids’ sleeping loft. Her father died in a farming accident when she was very young and her mother carried on and set an example for Betty Lou, whose well-known motto in tough times was, “We just need to work harder.”
“Betty was probably the hardest working woman I ever knew,” said Ruth Shepardson, who teaches agriculture and directs the Future Farmers of America program at Plateau Valley School. “She could work us all under the table.”
Betty Lou graduated from what was then called Collbran Union High School in 1953 and took off on what was likely the only lark of her life. She traveled to England with a friend before returning to her farming valley to marry Danny Hawkins the following year. The Hawkins’ had three sons, and their marriage lasted 25 years. For the remaining 47 years of her life, she ran a farm with 50 head of cows and the help of her oldest son. Old photos show her single-handedly bucking bales of hay and ministering to the cows she was known to love.
In many photos, Betty Lou has a half smile that looks like it might have been bestowed on a photographer grudgingly. She likely didn’t have time to stand around mugging for a camera. There were calves needing tending to, beets and turnips to hoe, a quilt to finish or a school lunch to plan.
To help keep the farm going, she took on the lunch lady job. She not only cooked for the Plateau Valley School. She also cooked for a number of years for the Collbran Job Corps facility up the road. In her spare time, she cleaned houses and condos at nearby Powderhorn Mountain Resort while keeping her own farmhouse immaculate and her large vegetable garden well-tended. Every summer, she grew a 5-acre pumpkin patch with the help of fifth-graders who then sold the pumpkins to raise money for their class trip.
When her ex-husband got sick, she was the one who stepped in and took care of him until he died.
Those who knew her say she had the energy of 10 women.
Missy Wallace, a school cook who worked under Betty Lou, described her as “quiet, but she was everywhere doing everything.”
Wallace and assistant cook Sandi Dew recall she could open 10 No. 10 aluminum cans in 2 minutes flat. She could leap onto counters to get things down from shelves. She could roll out large slabs of dough in a flash.
She had no patience with Wallace’s polite way of testing to see if the spaghetti was done. Betty Lou grabbed a strand, threw it against the wall to see if it would stick, and said, “that’s how you test.”
Values with a long shelf life
She had strong opinions about what kids should — or should not — eat. She was put out with Wallace once for planning to serve pork and beans on a basketball game day. That was not something a lunch lady should ever do because of how gassy it made the kids in a closed gym.
Betty Lou was also legendarily frugal. Entwhistle said she has found drawers of neatly folded up, used tin foil in the school kitchen. When Betty Lou had to make the 50-minute trip down the mesa to Grand Junction occasionally, she would pack along a sack lunch. She didn’t want to waste money buying food. Besides, it probably wasn’t as good as what she made herself.
Betty Lou somehow eked out the time to be kind and helpful to all in her close-knit community. She made hundreds of quilts that she gave away and sent thousands of cards to people needing a lift or celebrating a special event. She delivered homemade cookies to her 20 nieces and nephews on birthdays and holidays.
She grew and sold Christmas trees and always kept a nice one for herself. It would be a centerpiece of a Christmas display that made Betty Lou’s house notably festive, indoors and out.
Her serious demeanor sometimes showed joyful cracks, according to a great niece who wrote a tribute to Betty Lou to post in the lunchroom. She took time to enjoy small things. One of those was “coasting.” She would use a runner sled to happily speed down the hill to do her chores.
Plateau Valley Superintendent Mike Page attended school at Plateau Valley from second through 12th grade and said Betty Lou would be stern with him when he needed it — which was often — even though both his parents were teachers at the school.
Page didn’t vote in the Betty Lou Hawkins Day favorite food contest because he doesn’t remember specific favorites. He just remembers that “everything was good. Everything was from scratch.”
He is proud that Entwhistle is carrying on that tradition. He knows that his little Plateau Valley School, tucked up a winding road and insulated from population centers, has some qualities that many large school districts might envy: good food for the students along with a helping of old-fashioned, tight-knit community values.
“We are by no means Mayberry up here, but we are pretty close,” Page said.
A gap-toothed grin flashed by first-grader Bradford Feller as he politely asked for seconds of pesto pasta, underscores that.
“I like the food here,” Feller said as he speared pasta bites.
He is too young to have known lunch lady Betty Lou, but he will get a lesson in remembrance today, and in the future. Today is officially being called the First Annual Betty Lou Hawkins Day.
Entwhistle said lunch ladies don’t often get a lot of respect — and definitely not a lot of pay — but they can play a large role in children’s lives, even years after they have passed on.
The values they instill have a long shelf life.
The proof is in a room filled with kids eagerly tackling their lunches — meals that Entwhistle notes are still made with love, in the Betty Lou tradition.