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Lunch-time duty a welcome break for Halethorpe woman, 92

Lunch-time duty a welcome break for Halethorpe woman, 92
Bertha McManus checks up on third-graders Kya Barrett, left, Nyla Woods and other students at their table during lunch at Halethorpe Elementary School. (Staff Photo by Brian Krista)

It's 12:35 p.m. and Bertha McManus' shift is just starting. She scrambles around the room, wiping down tables and setting chairs straight for the start of the lunchtime crowd that's beginning to pour in.

Instead of checking her watch or looking exasperated, McManus is smiling. This is her favorite part of the week.

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"I enjoy all of it," she said.

At 92 years old, McManus has held her fair share of jobs. Working since the age of 16, the Halethorpe resident has been employed at a uniform shop, a shoe factory, a business supply store and at Lexington Market in Baltimore. She even spent some time as a barmaid at Jennings Cafe in Catonsville, she said.

But 14 years ago, long after many of her counterparts had begun enjoying retirement, she found her real passion: working as lunch monitor at Halethorpe Elementary School.

McManus has seen nearly an entire generation make its way through the cafeteria of the school on Maple Avenue, , making her tenure one of the longest at the school.

Even when census data shows more people are postponing retirement and working later into life, McManus is still an anomaly.

"I think she's done very well for herself all her life," said her son-in-law, Charles Biddinger.

About 12 years ago, McManus moved from Violetville into the Halethorpe home Biddinger and his wife, Robin, McManus' daughter, share with their three daughters. Having his mother-in-law around the house, Biddinger said, is both fascinating and inspiring.

"She's got a lot of energy," he said, listing the household chores such as making the beds, packing lunches and cleaning the dishes McManus spends time on every day. "Some of the things [she does] I can't do."

Watching McManus work and seeing her strong ethic in action has also been good for his daughters, he said.

McManus' twin granddaughters, Melanie and Melissa Biddinger, were the reason she took the job at the school in the first place. When the twins, now 20, were entering second grade at Halethorpe, she recalled being semi-retired at the time and desperately bored.

"I got tired of sitting home," McManus said.

Her experience at the bar made the work at the school easy, she said. The added bonus of spending time every day with her granddaughters sealed the deal for her.

"She said, 'It's perfect, because I'll see you at lunch.', " said the twins' sister, Michelle, 25.

"We loved it," Melissa said of the feeling she shared with her twin sister. "It was like having a home away from home."

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Five days a week, McManus would come to the school to monitor lunchtime. Eventually, Melanie and Melissa said, classmates got to know her both as the lunchroom monitor and as the girls' grandmother.

When Melissa and Melanie left elementary school and moved up to middle school, McManus decided to stick with her post at Halethorpe elementary.

"I enjoyed it, being around all the children," she said of her decision to stay at the elementary school.

For about a dozen years, McManus traveled to the school five days a week to clean tables, set up chairs and help students while they ate their lunches.

She loved working five days a week, but over time, she had to wind her schedule down a bit. A couple years ago, she switched to two days a week. Now, she works once a week at the school.

Every Monday, one of her granddaughters drops her off at the school at 12:20 p.m. for her one-hour shift.

Though her shift doesn't start until lunch, McManus still likes to start her day early, said Michelle Biddinger, the twins' older sister.

That early start means ironing her clothes, doing some sewing and eating breakfast.

"Then she's waiting by the door like, 'C'mon girls, time to go.'," Melanie said.

The three girls, who all attend college on the Catonsville campus of at the Community College of Baltimore County and plan to transfer to nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County, don't have to sit in classes on Monday, so they drive her to and from the school.

During the hour McManus spends at the school, she is a bundle of non-stop energy.

Grabbing a rag soaked in sanitizer at the door of the cafeteria, she immediately begins her work getting tables ready for the next round of students. She wipes down tabletops and moves chairs into position.

When the children arrive, she kicks into overdrive, stopping at every table to chat with the kids and occasionally tell them to sit correctly in their chairs.

The highlight of the job for her, she said, is getting to talk to the students. She may not remember all their names, but she said she loves to hear what's going on in their lives and how their day is going.

With the kids, she's a star, known equally for her helpfulness and for her tendency to arrive to work every Monday impeccably dressed.

"She has very nice clothes," said Cheyanne Chriss, a second-grader who said her favorite thing about McManus is her shirts.

"She makes sure we don't get hurt," second-grader London Durham said of McManus.

"She's awesome," said Noah Mason, another second-grader.

Other students added that McManus helps them occasionally with their schoolwork if they need it.

"She reminds me of my grandmother," said Breyona Morris, a Halethorpe third-grader.

Even though she regularly jokes about retiring, McManus said she has no immediate plans to stop working. She likes the paycheck, she said, but she likes the kids more.

Among her coworkers, McManus sets an example with energy and her willingness to show the children tough love when they're getting out of control or doing something disruptive.

"She sets them straight," said Kathy Gill, who works the Monday shift with McManus. "She tells them like it is."

"They listen to her," agreed Bernadette Swann, the school's cafeteria manager, who has been working with McManus for seven years.

Swann said she has gotten to know McManus well over the years they have been working together.

"She's just an amazing woman," Swann said, "I don't know how she does it."

Even though they joke about it on a regular basis, Swann said she is not ready for the day McManus finally does decide to retire.

But she takes some comfort from the belief that it will happen any time soon either.

"She's been retiring for about four years now," she said. But, "she hasn't made it."

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