It’s funny sometimes how the little decisions we make shape the rest of our lives, and the lives of everyone around us.
It was July 1972, and Mae Velde — fresh from graduating one month earlier from Franklin High School — applied for a kitchen job at Frisch’s on Germantown Road. She figured she’d work there for six months like the other high school kids, then move on to another job, maybe one more promising.
Luckily for Velde, and those who requested her as a waitress since Nixon was in the White House, she never moved on until last week when she retired after 43 years.
“I came here to do a job,” said Velde, 62. “But I don’t see these people as my customers; they are my family. It’s hard to put it all into words, 43 years. I never realized I touched so many lives. I didn’t realize all those years I was going above and beyond.”
By the flattery written on Velde’s Facebook page, the long line of customers waiting for one of her tables to open, or by the flower arrangements and retirement cards sitting on the Frisch’s counter, there’s no doubt that the Big Boy took a back seat to the Little Girl.
On Wednesday, her final day, Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones stopped by, deputized Velde and presented her with a certificate recognizing her years of service. She was “starstruck,” she said.
“I admire that man to no end,” she said.
People have been reaping similar praise on Velde ever since she announced her retirement a couple of weeks ago. The Frisch’s marque read: “Visit Mae Before Her Retirement.”
Velde said she was humbled, but not embarrassed by the attention. She got emotional too.
“Millions and millions of tears,” she said. “It started two weeks ago and I have cried every day since. Somebody has made me cry.”
Her daughter, Katie Epperson, compared the Frisch’s farewell to a visitation or funeral that her mother was able to attend while she was alive. Her daughter told her: “People go through their entire lives not knowing how people care about them. And at the funeral they shed a tear or share a moment. You get to see the funeral before you die.”
Velde agreed: “I believe that’s happening.”
Her next stop: A grandmother’s heaven. She and her husband, Joe, are selling their Middletown home and moving to Columbus to be closer to their daughter, son-in-law, a veteran who works for Homeland Security at the Port Columbus International Airport, and their four grandchildren. For the last four decades, she has worked six days a week. She has missed enough of life.
Velde then told another customer she loved them.
“I enjoyed it from day one,” she said.
Velde will be forever linked to Frisch’s like its award-winning pumpkin pie. She started in the kitchen, advanced to the drive-through and found a home as dining room leader.
Manager JP Tremblay has been at the Middletown Frisch’s for eight months. Velde has uniforms twice that old. Still, in that short time, he has been “overwhelmed” by the impact Velde has on her customers.
“She is something special,” he said. “She will be missed.”
For the first time in 43 years, Velde and Pam Ragsdale won’t be co-workers. They both started there the same year.
“She is my sister,” said Ragsdale, kitchen leader. “Everybody loves Mae.”
There was a time when she and five of her siblings all worked at Frisch’s, and her husband for the last 37 years was a regular customer. Some people tip their waitresses. Joe married his.
When asked what makes a “good waitress,” Velde said they must be friendly and courteous, traits she was taught 43 years ago, and passed down to the young waitresses.
“You have to know what your customers want before they know,” she said. “I learned from the best and I tried to teach them.”
Now they’re on their own. Velde won’t be back for a while. No mother wants to smother their children.
“It’s been a good ride,” she said. “I’m going home. I’m sad a little bit. A little bit. OK, I just lied.”
Then she stepped behind the cash register, and clocked out for the last time. She walked out the front door, turned left and slowly made her way through the parking lot.
On the way, she stopped and wiped away a few tears.
That decision 43 years ago was the right one.