Today marks Wilma’s last day of her 27-year tenure at Columbia. She has brought omelets to life at John Jay Dining Hall and has contributed immensely to the personalized dining experience there. Be sure to stop by Wilma’s Grill and bid her farewell. After she leaves, hopefully you'll run into her on her epic NYC bus tour.
How did you arrive at your current role?
Fashion is my passion; cooking has been my blessing. I used to be a military dependent wife and I would cook overseas. When I first came back to New York, I was homeless and going through a divorce. Someone approached me at the restaurant I was working at on 125th and Broadway, a man named John Gray. One day I told him they were closing the shop down and he offered me an interview at Columbia Dining. He has been my angel and I’ve never seen him since. I wanted to do him proud wherever he is, to see that he did good by bringing me here. It’s been a blessing to work for Columbia.
What has been the best part about working at Columbia?
Interacting with the students because I don’t have any children. Being in the military you travel from one place to the next and don’t settle down. But here, I was meeting kids I would see for four years and from all different parts of the world. I’ve had some students on occasion who say, “You don’t know me and you probably don’t remember my parent, but they went to school here and they asked me to see if you were still here.” I’ve had that happen on three or four occasions. Even 27 years ago I made enough of an impression on someone that they asked their children to see if I was still here!
Tell me about Wilma’s Grill.
John Jay started with six items on their menu for omelets and I was able to be creative and offer more items to the menu—such as olives, corn, different things—anything edible can go in an omelet! Sometimes I would add some things kids would request and have the managers order it for me. I introduced kids that never had matzo brei—eggs with matzo crackers—and that started conversations because matzo brei is an item a lot of Jewish grandmothers would teach their kids, and you come to Columbia and for breakfast you can have matzo brei! Whatever I can find in the cafeteria at that time on that day I would incorporate into the menu.
How did it become your grill?
After years of working on the grill, management made a decision—you know what, Wilma does a good job on that grill so we’re going to name it “Wilma’s Grill.” I watch a lot of television and I think the chef that works for Google has his own grill so thought that was really nice. I’m up there with the Google chef!
What prompted the transition from the omelet station to the cold bar?
When the temperature hit 75, starting this past year in the summer months, we transitioned over to a bagel bar. It cuts down on the heat because the building is old and ventilation is difficult. It’s been going well and it makes it a lot cooler for the customers and the workers. In the winter months, they’ll go back to the omelets.
Do you prefer omelets or bagels?
To be honest, I prefer being blessed with the students being in front of me, and workers and outside staff coming. I just enjoy serving. So neither one of them is better; they’ve all been enjoyable for me. When I had the omelet bar, see, I was able to have a free sauna every day. It helped me stay healthy. Perspiring is good for my body. Now I’m in a cool down station [laughs]! It’s a good way to go out, in a cool down situation.
Will the grill keep your name after you leave?
That is up to the dining services. From what I see, the statues outside around campus are engraved. My name isn’t permanent and can come down, but I hope that one day when I come back I will see it still there. But if it’s not, I know that I’ve been here, and 27 years of kids know that I’ve been here.
Describe Wilma’s Day.
It was a surprise to me. Vicki Dunn, executive director of Dining, has a lot do with a lot of stuff that has been happening with the joy of me coming through to this day. Wilma’s Day was a day of appreciation from the staff. They gave me a tiara [pictured here] and a proclamation. They posted a sign outside so the kids knew also and served salmon on the menu that day—my favorite food. The next day I was able to serve salmon to my kids in their omelets.
What is the craziest omelet you’ve ever made?
One of my students would bring peanut butter and jelly to the grill. He wanted an Elvis Presley omelet! More than once he came for it.
What have you learned during your 2+ decades here?
Tolerance and patience. Being that you’re working with a lot of people from different parts of the world, we don’t always understand one another or hear one another clearly. Just as they have to hear me, I have to hear them and be able to understand the different ways of speaking. We have to explain to each other what we are trying to say. A lot of the kids, they don’t like to read the menu, but they want to point! No, this is a school of higher learning. There’s a menu right there. It takes tolerance. We have to understand each other to get this omelet made here.
Tell me about your most bizarre student interaction.
He may have been a student, but he was much older. About 15 years ago, a man asked if I served KKK omelets. I said, “Hm, what is it made of and maybe I can make it for you?” and in response he said, “It’s egg whites.” It wasn’t funny. He did tell me that in Arkansas or Mississippi there is a restaurant and they serve KKK omelets and that’s what he was referring to. I thought it was nasty—that was a shocking experience for me. But that goes along with having tolerance for different things that happen in the cafeteria.
If you were 18 now, what would be your dream job?
To be a traveler, a globe trotter. I’d like to do something where I could travel around different places. Maybe be a stewardess. At that time, as a black woman, you didn’t see a lot of stewardess out there so I didn’t have that as an example. But now that I’m grown and I can see that they’re out there, I would have wanted to be a stewardess. Yes, that would have worked good for me.
How do you plan to celebrate 27 years?
My sister Donna called me a few weeks ago saying, “I want you to pack your bags and I don’t want to hear anything.” She booked me a trip to Bermuda! That’s my bucket list trip. I’m really looking forward to it. Especially now that I’m retired, you don’t want to dress up and come to work every day like you have been. On the ship, you can dress up 3 or 4 times—that’s going to be fun! Breakfast clothes into lunch clothes and the captain’s ball.
After you return from your cruise, how will you spend your free time?
I’m turning 66 on May the 22nd, and I’ll have a half-fare senior card for transportation. I want to get on the bus and tour every borough and every street that a bus can go to in NYC. Just change from one bus to the next bus to the next bus.
What advice do you have for students?
Love each day. Just embrace each day as it comes. Tomorrow will take care of itself; yesterday has already passed. Embrace each day with love and be happy when you can see someone and someone can see you. Be happy: That’s a good day. My advice is to love each day with a passion. Love who you’re with, whether you’re with them or not with them. Make the joyful noise. Love yourself. And Sing in the Rain. And that’s Wilma.
Dara Marans is a soon-to-be graduate of Columbia College. She hopes to continue talking to strangers, reading books in strange yet cozy places, and learning from those around her. Keep it real, Columbia.
Editors note: this interview is the last publication of Faces of Columbia until next year. If you'd like to take over the series in the fall, please email email@example.com.