BY AUSTIN LAGESSE
Most students know her simply as “the sandwich lady.” Others know her by her name, Stephani Stark. One thing is for sure: you are guaranteed to see her Monday through Friday at the deli station in Ames from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Being part of the Ames Dining Hall cooking staff for five years now, Stephani’s deli area has become her second home. “I want to make every kid feel like that is a place where they can come and be comfortable,” said Stark. The length of her lines during the rush hour lunch is a testament to her superior sandwich skills. A quickly extending line is no problem for the sandwich lady, who knows over 50 different sandwiches by heart.
Stark’s journey that landed her at McKendree lends to her enthusiastic work spirit and compassion towards students. In 2009, after her husband of 29 years, Glenn, had been stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy, Stark and her family moved back to the United States. Wanting to stay around the Scott Air Force Base area after Glenn retired from 26 years of military service, Stark and her family stumbled upon a home in Lebanon. At the time of the move, Stephani had been working as a cook at a nursing home in the St. Louis metro-east area.
Not knowing McKendree University even existed when they moved to Lebanon, it wasn’t until two years later when Stark and her husband were walking around campus that they stumbled upon Ames Dining Hall. The facility was undergoing renovation at that time in the summer of 2011, and, upon seeing the construction and peeking through the window, Stark thought, “Man, that would be a really cool place to work!”
Just days later, Stark saw an advertisement in the Lebanon Advertiser for a cook at Ames Dining Hall. She knew it was meant to be. All it took was an application, and Stephani Stark was hired on as a part-time worker and then promoted to full-time for the Sodexo staff.
A typical weekday for Stark begins at 5:30 a.m. She arrives before sunrise to begin preparing a hot breakfast for all the early-risers at McKendree, including making omelets, eggs, hash browns and other continental breakfast items. She also makes sure there are plenty of materials to make waffles, a student favorite. Stark also plays a key role in preparing food for the main entrée and international meal for the day.
Around 10 a.m. she prepares her sandwich area to serve over 100 sandwiches and wraps to the hungry students and staff of McKendree. For Stark, it is a hands-on job as she slices everything by hand to make sure that she is serving the best vegetables, bread and meat. It’s all smiles beginning at 11 a.m. as familiar faces begin to line up.
“I like that McKendree is a big family,” she says, “and I like to meet the new kids every day.” A university family that comes from all over the United States and from all corners of the world, Stark connects with them all.
“I particularly gravitate to the foreign students a lot of the time because I feel like they don’t have that connection yet,” explains Stark, noting that the international student presence on campus has grown tremendously since 2011. “I’ll learn their names and where they are from. I even like them to teach me how to say hello, thank you or good-bye in their own language and help them feel more comfortable in a strange environment.”
“She knows everything about me,” said McKendree senior Sammie Fagerburg. “I love that she is so energetic and enthusiastic in what she does.” Fagerburg has been getting her lunch from the deli station for the past three and a half years.
It’s all part of the sandwich lady charm, as she begins to memorize the orders of students and even goes the extra step to build relationships with those she serves every day.
Outside of Ames Dining Hall, Stark enjoys McKendree’s athletic events. She thanks her love of sports as a reason to support the student athletes she serves every day. It is not a rare occasion to see Stark bring her family to a Friday night volleyball match, followed by a visit to Leemon Field on a Saturday afternoon to cheer on the Bearcat football team. She even expressed her excitement for the newly formed water polo squads. One thing for sure is that Stark is invested in the McKendree community she gets to be an active part of.
The best advice she gives to incoming freshman is, “Get some rubber boots because it will rain hard.” But most importantly, she advises students to, “Study hard, and try not to get caught up in all the outside stuff. You are here for an education. You have to remember that sports might not always be there, but your education will be. Make sure that education is your priority.”
Stephani Stark brings enthusiasm to her job and positively affects students who just need someone to connect with. You can always find her during lunch hours at Ames Dining Hall, a long line outside her sandwich station and a smile on her face.
Cover photo credit: Kathryn Stark