Cris Stafford

Cris Stafford, a lunch lady at Egg Harbor Township's E.A. Slaybaugh School, loved to help people - and she believed that one of the best ways to do that was to make them laugh.

Cris Stafford was a lunch lady. For years, she worked in the cafeteria of the Slaybaugh School, in her hometown, Egg Harbor Township.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Stafford, who died Sept. 26, at 69, was never the movie/TV stereotype of the lunch lady. Like most real cafeteria workers, she wasn’t a stone-faced woman who hated her job.

“She lived for those kids,” says Amie Elbertson, a Slaybaugh teacher since 1996, who knew Stafford for years before that. Stafford was Elbertson’s peewee cheerleading coach, so they met when Elbertson was 7.

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Stafford’s oldest daughter, MaryAnn Stafford, of Nashville, Tenn., says Cris started coaching when MaryAnn was a peewee. But even when Cris’ own three daughters and a son — now 34 to 42 — grew up and out of cheerleading, and football, Cris kept coaching those mini-cheerleaders.

“After I graduated from college, she was still doing it. She did it forever,” MaryAnn says.

Her daughter says that mean lunch-lady image was about as far as you could get from Cris, who was born Clarissa Bailey and grew up in Atlantic City. She loved to laugh so much, she made fun of her own name — she hated Clarissa. She even joked about her cancer as she fought it three times in 10 years.

“That’s how the whole family gets through anything,” MaryAnn says. “‘Laughter is the best medicine’ is pretty much our motto.”

And as sad as her husband, Tom, and their four kids and four grandchildren all were when Cris lost her fight, her family could even laugh at her funeral.

“There was one part where my uncle was singing ‘Amazing Grace’ very loudly. ... He did it on purpose — he knew it would lighten up the mood a little,’” MaryAnn says. And it did: Shoulders were shaking in the Stafford family’s pews as the laughter spread like a flu.

Some people in the church might not have appreciated it, “But at that moment, we all knew ... she would have been bursting out laughing, too,” MaryAnn says.

And it wasn’t just her own family that Cris believed laughter could help. A few years ago, her old friend Amie Elbertson was driving when a big, wild turkey flew into her car with a nasty thud. Elbertson was pretty upset, naturally, so Cris tried to help her out — by sticking feathers all over the car, even spilling out of the gas-tank cover. But the real punch line to the practical joke was the turkey stuffing Cris also spread all over the car.

When Elbertson started at Slaybaugh as a 24-year-old rookie teacher, and found her old cheerleading coach there, “She was like my guardian angel,” Elbertson says. “She helped me with everything. She always had a kind word — and if not a kind word, she cracked a joke that had you falling on the floor.”

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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