Born and raised in the small town of Taylor, Mississippi, 74-year-old Irene Willingham has been filling stomachs and serving with a smile in the University’s dining services for 50 years.
It all began in January of 1966 after her older cousin, already employed in Ole Miss dining, recommended her for a job.
Willingham said she grew up learning and loving to cook, but learned even more skills through workshops while she trained for the job.
When she was in 10th grade, she began work at the Johnson Commons, where she first cleaned tables, eventually moving to the assembly line to assist with cooking breakfast, baking desserts and catering. She stayed in this position until the opening of the Student Union in 1975.
She then moved to the Union and worked at Café Features, later named Magnolia Kitchen, where she cooked and served breakfast until she moved back to the Johnson Commons. During the Johnson Commons renovation, however, she cooked and served out of a makeshift trailer and in the Commons Ballroom.
Irene’s husband, Howard Willingham, also worked on campus at the Student Union as a general utility worker and stocker. She had five children during her time working at Ole Miss: Avvie, Edith, Sheila, Royonda and Robert.
Rain, sleet or snow, Willingham always found a way to work and always gave her job her all.
“I most definitely loved it,” she said. “I had no problems with it.”
The love for her work, dedication to her craft and lack of complaints could be felt from anyone who worked with her.
James Jankowski is currently the senior food service director at the University of Kentucky, but worked with Willingham for eight years prior to his departure from Ole Miss. He said that Willingham’s devotion to her job has impacted faculty, staff and students for years.
“To this date, alumni seek her out to discuss their lives and introduce her to their families and children who are now attending Ole Miss, all while eating her cheese grits,” Jankowski said.
Today, she works with her daughter, Edith, serving breakfast at the Rebel Market. The two have been working together since August of 2001, when Willingham recommended her for the job.
After half a century of hard work, seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a slight weakness in her left ankle, Willingham will finally hang up her apron at the end of December.
Her daughter has been trained to make her beloved cheese grits, and she promises to fill in her mother’s shoes to the best of her ability.
“She’s a dedicated worker and she likes her food to be top quality,” Edith said, “Pressure doesn’t bother her. She motivates me a whole lot, and I look up to her. It’s gonna be hard working without her.”
As for Irene, she knows exactly what she’ll be spending her retirement doing.
“Nothing,” she said, with a laugh. “I’m just gonna go home and do what I wanna do — nothing!”