When Bettye Tucker started cooking at Children’s Memorial Hospital, she was 21 years old – she never thought she still be working with us when she turned 71! Fifty years later, Bettye retired from the hospital on March 31, carrying the hundreds of thousands of children, families, visitors and staff with her when she walked through the doors for the last time. ”I enjoyed every minute at the grille,” she said. “Fifteen years of days and 35 years on nights. I learned so much, met so many, but it’s time to go.” The well-wishers and people lining up for a last week of Ms. Bettye’s specialties (Louisiana French toast, signature pancakes and melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheese and ham) are happy for her, but it is a bittersweet farewell.
“For 12 years, I was both cook and cashier. When I started, the hospital (now Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago) had 75 beds and we only offered breakfast. I went to my supervisor and said, ‘These families need more than just breakfast, they need lunch and dinner and food that will sustain and nourish them.’ He told me to go for it. I got to cook my specialties, and before long we were cooking everything from okra and cauliflower to chicken and pork roast.”
It is when she talks about the children that her voice falters. “I love each and every one of them. I would make anything they wanted, I loved special requests. They taught me how to live and the food was something small that I could give back.”
Two parties, one for the night shift, the other for the day shift were held in Ms. Bettye’s honor this week. The kitchen staff provided the catering, and the menu is was compilation of many favorites prepared by Ms. Bettye and others over a half-century. When asked, now that she was retiring, if she would share her recipe for her famous French toast, she fired back, “Never. That recipe was given to me years ago by my supervisor, Dorothy Lewis. We cooked for kids on the third floor, which then was the cancer ward. One of the children kept asking for French toast. So Ms. Lewis whipped up a batch. Everyone went wild for it. It was like nothing you ever tasted before. She taught me how to make it. It was her father’s secret recipe he brought from Louisiana. She made me promise to keep it a secret and I never wrote it down. Just did it in my mind. And that’s where it will stay,” she smiles.
While life won’t be the same after she leaves the hospital, she has big plans for her newfound free time. “My husband, James, and I plan to do some traveling. I’ll finally have time to garden, something we both love. We’ll volunteer at our church. And I have three wonderful grown children, so there is always something going on…and someone to cook for! It’s exciting, and I am blessed to be leaving with my health and strength,” says Ms. Bettye.
She will be leaving with a lot more than that. Fifty years of gratitude from the myriad of lives she has touched and nurtured, will follow her like family, as she begins a new shift, on Ms. Bettye’s time.
Thank you, Ms. Bettye!
CBS Chicago visited Ms. Bettye on her last day – you can watch their report here.