Interviewee: Pat Richardson

Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce

Date: April 1, 2021

Description: Pat Robertson was born in Kansas and grew up in Arkansas before moving to Mississippi to attend Ole Miss. She is a former child nutrition director for Oxford City Schools and is now retired from the Institute of Child Nutrition as an Education and Training Specialist.


JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is April 1, 2021. I’m here at the Institute of Child Nutrition with Pat Richardson, who is a retiree from here. We’re doing her interview of her career today. Welcome back and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

PR: Thank you Jeff. It’s good to be back.

JB: How long has it been since you retired?

PR: June of last year, but they closed the building March 16th of last year.

JB: Could we begin today with you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?

PR: I was born at Fort Riley, Kansas. My dad was in the army when I was born, and so I was an army baby for a couple of years. Then we drifted down to Manila, Arkansas, and then Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I grew up.     

JB: Was your father still in the military there?

PR: No, he got out, and that’s when we started drifting down to Jonesboro, and that’s where I grew up. We moved there when I was three and I left there in 1991 to come down here [Oxford, Mississippi].

JB: Were your parents from Arkansas?

PR: My father’s from Missouri and my mother’s from down here. They met at Ole Miss. They were in school together and this is where they met. My mother was born and raised here, so that’s why I have close ties to Oxford.

JB: What are your earliest recollections of child nutrition programs? Was there a school breakfast or lunch program when you were growing up, and did you participate.

PR: We didn’t have breakfast, but we had lunch, and yes, I ate lunch when I was in grade school through junior high. I didn’t when I was in high school. I don’t even know where the high school cafeteria is, or was, because I’m sure that cafeteria is gone by now. I remember the smell when they made fresh rolls. It just went throughout the building and drew you in to come eat lunch.

JB: I can’t tell you how many people, over the years doing these oral histories, have talked about the rolls, the lunchroom rolls. Do you remember some of your other favorite menu items?

PR: Spaghetti, chocolate cake. I liked the hamburgers.

JB: I suppose everything was still made from scratch.

PR: Oh yea, they were.

JB: And this was in Jonesboro you said?

PR: Um-hum.

JB: How big was your school?

PR: When I was in elementary school we had four – North, South, East, and West. And I started out first through third grade in South School, and then they changed the districts, and I went fourth through sixth grade at West School. It’s basically the same distance to both of them, but they just changed the districting two streets over – we never moved.

JB: Your district left you.

PR: Right. And with junior high, I lived two blocks from the junior high. We only had one at that time. And then they developed a second junior high, and my dad was the first band director there. And of course when you’re a band director, you’ve got to learn to play all the instruments. And me and my brother and two sisters were all in band as well – a musical family.

JB: What did you play?

PR: I played the flute.

JB: I played the tuba.

PR: Well, I also learned how to play clarinet and saxophone as well, and percussion.

JB: Do you still play any of those?

PR: No. I still have a flute, but it needs an overhaul.

JB: Tell me about your educational background. What schools did you attend?

PR: I attended Arkansas State twice. The first time my parents said, “You are going to college right out of high school.” And I thought ‘What am I going to study? I don’t even know what I want to do.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go get the quickest thing I can.’ So I got a two-year associate degree in secretarial science. And right after that I got a job at one of the hospitals there in Jonesboro. And I was in data processing. I had taken a data processing class and I thought ‘That would be interesting. I’d love to do that.’ And so for two years of being out, I worked, and then decided to go back to school. And I did, I went back to school and started out as an accounting major. Can you believe that? And I got to cost accounting and that just did me in, so I switched over to data processing, and really enjoyed that classes that we had. And then I got to realize ‘I’m going to be sitting behind a desk in an office, rewriting somebody else’s programs. I’m not going to be able to be able to develop my own. And I thought ‘I don’t want to do that, because I don’t write like those people.’ And even in programming, it’s like writing. Everybody writes differently.  Programming’s the same way. And the languages that I learned are no longer in existence, so – I did not get a degree, eighteen hours away from that degree, and I ran out of money anyway, so I went to work. I did various things. I worked in a car dealership. I worked in another hospital. I worked as a secretary for a friend of my dad’s. I worked in a real estate office. I did a lot of different things. And when my nephew was in the second grade he was old enough to join Cub Scouts. So Cyndi and I, my sister, her son was the one that was old enough, we got involved with Cub Scouts. And I was a Cub Master. I was also a Den Leader, and Cyndi was a Den Leader and we had a really good Pack. And that got me interested in children, because we had several little boys, that even though they were in second or third grade they couldn’t read at all, no letters, no numbers, nothing. So I spent time with those three boys teaching them how to read. They couldn’t learn their law, they couldn’t learn the pack, they couldn’t learn anything they were supposed to.  So I spent time with them and I thought ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to work with kids.’ So my mother knew the registrar down here, and I thought home economics is where I’d like to start. Of course home economics was getting out of the way of high schools and junior highs at that time. And so I came down here to Ole Miss, and Dr. Oakley, she was my mentor. I mean she found me, she took me under her wing, and she says, “You really need to become a registered dietitian.” And I said, “No I don’t. That’s too much science and I’m not good at science.” So anyway, she got me hooked up with Karen Corbin, who was a food service director at Oxford at that time. So I did my internship under Karen. And she asked me to stay after my internship was over, so I stayed with her, worked summer feeding, worked in the office with her, learned how to do the stuff that directors do, and planning menus and processing free and reduced lunch forms and all that. And when she moved to another job she recommended me. And they had to advertise and everything, and there were two of us that they were deciding between, me and the high school manager. Well, they chose me, and I thought ‘Whoa!’ So I got that job and started working. Now I had already worked like two years part-time learning her job. So I spent I guess seven years working as food service director. And the superintendent started doing like a lot of what superintendents do and started wanting you to do things that I knew I couldn’t do. And I just decided that was it, and I started looking around for another job. And the Emily’s Bakery, I don’t know if you remember Emily’s Bakery here –

JB: I’ve heard of it.

PR: Okay. I worked there for three years as the baker. And a friend of mine, she and her husband, owned Emily’s. They bought it from DeAnna’s Convections. We were doing a 50th anniversary for my parent and I walked in there and Linda says, “What are you doing now?” And I said, “Planning a wedding reception.” And she said, “For you?” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no.” And so I worked there for a while, and I found a job here on campus, because Linda was cutting back on a lot of jobs, and I had already moved out to the country at that time, and driving twenty miles into town for four hours a day just doesn’t work too well. So I found a job here on campus as secretary over at the art department. Loved it, I absolutely loved it. And I guess I worked there for three years. And Charlotte Oakley had become the director here at the Institute during that time, and she kept calling me and saying, “I’ve got a position here. I’ve got a position there.” But I loved my job over there and changing didn’t pay enough for me to change, ‘til one day she called me and said, “I’ve got a position for you.” I said, “Okay, Dr. Wicker and I are going through budgets – “She just said, “No, I need you to look at the position, and then you decide what you want to do.” Okay, it was position for contract and grants specialist, and I thought ‘I don’t know anything about contracts and grants.’ So I called her back and talked to her and she said, “Don’t worry about the contracts and grants. The contracts, all we do is plug in information, and the grants, mainly I do that” meaning Charlotte. And I said, “Okay.” So I applied and I got the position, for a lot more than I was making over in the art department. So that’s how I got started over here. And then after two years I applied for education/training specialist, which that’s what she wanted me to do in the first place. So that’s how I got started in 2006 as education/training specialist until last year.

JB: Before we get into your position here tell me some of the director in a public school. Was it an elementary or a junior high?

PR: I was the director of all the Oxford School District, so I was in charge of three elementary, an alternative school, a high school and a middle school. It was busy.

JB: What was a typical day like, or was there a typical day?

PR: I’m not sure there was a typical day. Dealing with teachers, dealing with principals, dealing with cooks that weren’t happy; staff was really a handful sometimes. We had bickering going on over here – trying to find people to work in the right area. I had staff that didn’t want to do their jobs. I had staff that would come in late, and then they’d sit around and do nothing. People who really only wanted the paycheck, they didn’t want to do the work. The beginning of the school year you had all of the free and reduced lunch forms you had to have them in by a certain time, and you had to plan menus, and I was there before the really strict restrictions on meals now. But Karen and I had worked on menus that worked towards that. So we had cut down on a lot of the salt. We had started adding more nutritious foods, and cut down on the sweets, although we still had some sweets.

JB: So you were already moving towards the direction of what eventually became required.

PR: Yes. She knew it was going to go that way and so that’s what we just decided to work on. Try to get the kids used to it before it actually ‘You’ve got to have it this way.’

JB: By this point was there very much scratch cooking left?

PR: There was still some. I had a lady in the high school that made the rolls. She made all our bread. And then we had one lady that liked to cook the entrees. And she was at an elementary school. She liked cooking all the entrees by scratch. Most of it was gone by that time except for the rolls. I miss all those fresh smelling rolls so I bake at home.

JB: Tell me about your position here once you got into education and training.

PR: Education and training – I guess my first project was the BLTs, the Breakfast and Lunch Trainings. Charlotte wanted me to take one and redo it. So I did, did the research. We didn’t have any videos of it at that time. We took some old shots of things. I rewrote that first one. And I did three other BLTs after that. And then I got into the financial management, started working with Jerry Cater and Nina Cross with that. We were rewriting the first version for the second version. We did the twelve hour training course, and then I cut that twelve hour down to an eight hour and a four hour. That was fun. I loved working with Nina and Jerry. They were two of our trainers then. I don’t know if they are still training or not. In the financial management we kind of broke that out some and did a six hour. And then I did several interactive spreadsheet projects, and I also did online courses. Marty Mauldin and I were the first two to actually start writing online courses. We took a training, we had a company come in and develop the software just for the Institute, so we started putting online courses up. And before our instructional designer came I was one of the ones entering it into the software. And that was different, but I had that software background. I didn’t write it, but I was working with it, and found problems and stuff like that.

JB: So your educational background did help prepare you for what you did.

PR: Yes it did.

JB: As you worked with these courses, and at the Institute, did you see differences among the various states in how they did things?

PR: Yes. And I guess that’s even true with the menus. But the states had different rules and regulations that they had to go by, because their state departments developed sometimes more strenuous guidelines that the federal guidelines were. And so therefore, if their guideline were stricter, you had to follow theirs and not the federal. But here at the Institute we couldn’t write for individual states. We had to write for the federal, but can’t just go through all those different states and write something just for them. If they wanted something just for them they had to do their own. But a lot of times they would take ours and make it towards theirs.

JB: Adapt it to meet their requirements.

PR: Yes.

JB: Well that makes sense.

PR: That’s one of the reasons why we allowed our stuff to be adapted. It’s federally funded, so therefore it’s free. And they could do that.

JB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

PR: Learning how to write. Everybody knows how to write, but I had to learn verbs and adjectives and phrases and all that all over again the proper way. I think that was my biggest challenge. And then when we started working as teams I loved that. We started working as teams, and you could bounce ideas off of other people, and you put your heads together and you come up with a really good idea. I really enjoyed that. That was more fun. The travel was fun. Sometimes it wasn’t so fun – when you get stuck in the airport. It was one time when we were coming back from SNA in Philadelphia, and we sat out on the tarmac for like five hours, and then they took us back to the terminal. The reason why was there was a storm blowing through. Planes could leave going north and west, but planes going south and east could not. So we were there for another five days. We had to find a hotel. We were there for another five days until the travel agency could get another flight out for us. And they were trying to find three, because it was me, Marty, and Barbara Washington. And then we decided, okay, Barbara and I have to travel together. Marty said she could go by herself. So they finally found flights like that. It’s challenging, and I bet it’s even worse right now.

JB: What changes did you see in the child nutrition profession over the years?

PR: A lot of your directors now are required to be registered dietitians. And when I was there I was not required. I think they required four years of nutrition background and two of business. Now a lot of states require registered dietitians to be directors.

JB: What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the field?

PR: Well, the knowledge that I gained as a director, and I gained a lot of knowledge then, because I went in kind of thinking I knew what I needed to do, until you get there. And even though Karen taught me a lot, and she did, it wasn’t half I learned so much after she left, on my own, and talking with my friends who were already directors, and learning from them, and meeting new directors and networking.

JB: Were you involved with the state association when you were a director?

PR: I went to the meetings, but I didn’t see any reason to join. I wish I had, and I wish I’d gotten my managers more involved in it, and I guess because of the networking going on in the association. And whether it’s Mississippi or any other state you learn from other people. You get ideas from them, things that work in their district that might work in yours. Because after a while you kind of run out of things to do, and so you need fresh ideas. And the association and other directors can help you with that big time.

JB: Do you have any memorable stories about kids you’ve served or people you’ve worked with over your career?

PR: Yes, I do. When I left they gave me a big party and that just – I had some kids that were working in the cafeteria for me. I had one young man, he was so happy when he was able to buy a truck. I mean he made enough money, he was saving, and he bought himself a truck. He pulled it up to the back door of the high school and he came running in so excited. He was a good kid though, he really was. He was living with his grandmother. I’m not sure where his mother was at that time, but his grandmother was raising him. She was hard on him, but she was good, and he learned a lot from her, and he respected her. I had a lot of good staff. They did whatever they could to help you. I had four managers that were out of this world. They went out of their way. They said, “If you need me to do it just tell me. I’m happy to do it.” So I really had a good staff. You have those that aren’t that good, but you have some really good staff to overset that. And the kids would come in and they were really helpful. When we tried new foods, and I would ask them if they would just take a small portion, not be charged for it, just take a small portion and try it, and let me know what you think. And they were real good about that. They filled out the questionnaires and turned them in, and they were good. A lot of times you get ‘We hate this,’ but the kids were real good about trying new stuff, and that was good. Especially the elementary kids. They liked trying new stuff.

JB: Really?

PR: They would try it. I remember the first time we had broccoli. We just had a pan out there and we put one or two florets on their tray and asked them to try it. And one little girl came running in and said, “We’re having trees for lunch!” And I thought okay. So after that I put ‘trees’ on the menu so that they would know what it was.

JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?

PR: Go in it with your heart. You’re going to run into a lot of roadblocks. You’re going to run into a lot of strict rules, but it’s a great profession. It really is. I never regretted any of it. Yea, you’ve got to go by the rules and stuff like that, but it’s for the good of the kids, and just think about it. These kids are our future. They’re the ones that are going to be running the country in the future. So you want them to grow up with a strong mind, healthy body, and serving them good, nutritious food is going to help that. I just really think it’s a wonderful profession. Some people say, “You’re just cooking.” But no, you’re not just cooking. You’ve got to learn math, because you’ve got to adjust recipes. You’ve got to deal with parents, so you’ve got to be patient. Kids you’ve got to be patient with, teachers, everybody. But it’s a wonderful profession, it really is. I’m glad I did it, I really am, graduating from high school not even knowing what I was going to do, God herded me to the right position.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?

PR: I finally found my niche, and that was it. And then coming here helping extend that, I don’t know, of course I love to cook anyway. And so starting out and doing that, and then learning more, and helping kids grow and learn, and even your staff learn, so it’s a teaching position really. It’s just a great profession, it really is.

JB: Well thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

PR: Thanks Jeff. I enjoyed it.

JB: I did too.