At a conservative estimate, Thea Quirk has cooked and served 10 million meals to students at Ballakermeen High School in Douglas.
Thea hung up her apron last Friday after 44 years working in school kitchens, the last 39 of them at the Douglas school.
Thea was presented with flowers and gifts by school staff at a function to mark her final day.
At the event, attended by the school’s governors, Thea was serenaded by the full ‘workhouse chorus’ from the school’s forthcoming production of Oliver! singing Food, Glorious Food.
Thea will shortly receive an illuminated address – a framed certificate from the Isle of Man Government marking lengthy service – from the Department of Education and Children.
Thea said: ‘I never thought I’d end up cooking at the school I went to as a pupil.’
Thea left school at 16 and attended the College of Domestic Science in Kingswood Grove for a year before joining the school meals staff at Braddan Primary School in 1969. She transferred to the then separate Douglas High Schools for Boys and Girls, on the current Ballakermeen site, in 1974.
In those days, girls only mixed with boys when they entered their building for lunch.
Thea recalled that there was a set meal, with no choice: ‘It was a main meal and then a sweet and that was it. It could be stodgy and boring but we have branched out a lot since.’
In the kitchen, Thea said, there was a big boiler in the middle of the floor where vegetables and potatoes were cooked, plus two large steamers.
In those days, 500 to 600 meals were served each day. However, contrary to people’s perceptions of school dinners back then, Thea has never once dished up semolina.
More recently, in the kitchen of the current 11-18 secondary, Thea has been part of a 12-strong team under cook supervisor Kath Slattery that feeds 1,200 students a day at break times and lunchtimes.
Staff once took turns as cashiers but students now have swipe cards rather than carrying cash, an initiative the late headteacher Ian Masterton introduced to combat any bullying, she said.
Thea said that despite advances that mean the school now serves dozens of options, including healthy and vegetarian meals, the students’ perennial favourites are chips with cheese and gravy, curry sauce or chicken nuggets.
Thea, who is 61 and lives at Cronk-y-Berry, plans to carry on her part-time job at the Villa Marina and, unfettered by the school calendar, is looking forward to a holiday she’ll take with friends early in the new academic year. ‘I’ll send the kitchen staff a postcard,’ she said.
She’ll miss her colleagues and the company and the students, who, she says, are unfailingly polite.
Headteacher Adrienne Burnett has invited her back to school to enjoy lunch anytime she wants to, so she is hanging on to her own swipe card.
However, Thea says she’ll wait until the new, bigger kitchen and dining facilities – works starts on them this week as part of a £3.2 million extension – are complete.
Mrs Burnett paid tribute to her retiring staff member, saying: ‘Thea has been a loyal and cheerful member of our catering staff, working at Ballakermeen High School for an impressive 39 years.
‘To the best of my knowledge, Thea is the longest serving school meals employee on the Island.
‘There are 1,500 students at Ballakermeen. If we assume that an average of 1,200 students have lunch each day, this means that Thea, by working for 8,360 school days, has helped to serve an incredible 10 million meals.
‘We think she deserves a rest and wish Thea all the best, although knowing her as well as we do, we know that she will continue to work somewhere.’