Mildred Crescenzo’s job in the kitchen at her local school in Vineland was supposed to be temporary — just one day, actually.
But that one day led to another, then a lot more. So Crescenzo ended up staying a bit longer than she planned — she cooked for 45 years in two schools before she finally folded up her apron in 2001.
She was 82 when she retired, and by her family’s best count, she had cooked and dished out more than 1.3 million meals to kids, starting with that one-day assignment back in 1956.
Carol Fanning, her longtime friend from D’Ippolito Middle School, thinks she knows what changed to make Crescenzo go from fill-in to full-time all those years ago.
“They tasted her spaghetti sauce — and she was hired right then,” as Fanning figured it.
Crescenzo, a lifelong Vineland resident, was 94 when she died last month. Her son, Warren — he’s 64 now, but was in first grade at Vineland’s Oak and Main School when his mom started in his lunchroom — said Mildred really did have a magic touch with cafeteria food.
In the eulogy at her funeral, he said she ran “a five-star cafeteria, with freshly made, great-tasting food, and in heaping portions.”
Warren, a speech-language pathologist, said that at the start, his mom cooked everything from scratch. Later, as the operation got bigger and more complicated, she gave in and used some shortcuts — but spiced everything up until it met her own high standards.
And it’s not just her family who swears by her talents at the stove. When Mildred was transferred from Oak and Main to D’Ippolito after about 20 years, there were parent protests at her old school.
“Her lunches were almost like home-cooked meals for the children,” said Charles Valentine, a retired Vineland school superintendent who knew her for decades. “Her cafeteria was always superb. No one ever hesitated to have their lunch in Mildred’s cafeteria.”
And she loved her job. But she also needed it.
Her husband, Warren, was only 48 years old when he died of a heart condition in 1963, leaving his widow with two kids — their daughter, Beverly, is 2 years younger than their son.
The family saw some hard times living on her lunch-lady salary — “The necessities were there, but there were few extras,” as her son said at the funeral.
But Mildred also took part-time jobs, including working with her sister, Esther Fricano, at Storybook Land in Egg Harbor Township, where Fricano was a co-founder. Mildred cooked and served in the park’s cafe, and if you ever ate a Storybook Land gingerbread man, chances are you tasted her baking.
And there was nothing new for her about staying busy. Mildred, who was born a DeMarco, grew up with five brothers and sisters on her parents farm in Vineland — at a time when the family was still butchering its own pigs and growing its own food.
“She seemed to thrive on hard work,” her son said. “The more work you gave her, the more she would do.”
But it was hardly any work at all for her to take care of her four granddaughters, Gina, Jennie, Juliana and Giovanna Crescenzo, now ages 18 to 25. They were fans of her cooking and baking too, among her many other attractions, so they were always happy to go to their grandmom’s for weekend “camp-ins,” as the family called them.
“They could get away with murder over there,” their dad said. “We had to reprogram them when they came back.”
After she retired, Mildred stayed busy cooking and baking for years — for any family occasion, and for just about any cause around Vineland that involved feeding people.
“I always called her a one-person party,” Warren says. “She’d bring the food, bring presents, wash the dishes and everything.”
Still, she stayed on that cafeteria job long enough that her son — who remembers her suddenly showing up in his lunchroom when he was in first grade — was back in her cafeteria as an adult, working in his profession with kids in Vineland’s schools.
“It was kind of like deja vu all over again. I’d go to lunch, and she’d be there at the cash register,” Warren said, adding that was just fine with him — and not purely for family reasons. “I was sure I was going to get a good meal.”
Of course, that all stopped by the time his mom was 82, and she retired — although Mildred told a newspaper reporter at the time that she wasn’t sure she was ready to quit quite yet.
But then, some jobs are more temporary than others.
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