Haskell losing 3 longtime workers

Two cafeteria employees, professor to retire

Without them, Haskell Indian Nations University won’t be the same.

Three longtime employees – Bill Curtis, Ruby Hernandez and Georgia Keener – plan to retire Jan. 3.

“I’ve been here 39 years,” said Keener, cook leader at the university’s cafeteria. “I came here in 1961, spent my junior and senior years in high school here and then in 1964-65 got a degree in food service here. My instructor hired me in 1966, even though my supervisor thought I was too young.”

Keener paused, recalling the challenge. “I proved her wrong,” she said.

Hernandez has been cooking for Haskell students for 30 years.

“When I came here in 1969, I was the first person in my family to go to a junior college, and in 1970, I was the first to graduate,” Hernandez said.

Ruby Hernandez, a cook at Haskell Indian Nations University, prepares tomatoes for the salad bar Wednes-day. Hernandez will retire Jan. 3. She received a degree in commercial cooking in 1971 and cooked for Haskell students for 30 years.

“My father only got to go to the second grade before he had to go to work, so from the time I was in first grade he kept pushing me. He kept saying, ‘You are going to school, you are going to school.'”

Hernandez graduated from Haskell with a degree in commercial cooking in 1971.

“Haskell became a junior college in 1970, so I was in the first class to graduate,” she said.

Hernandez and Keener’s boss, food service director Barbara Stumblingbear, said they would be missed.

“It’s actually kind of scary, the thought of them not being here,” she said.

Nowadays, Stumblingbear said, the cafeteria serves about 155,000 meals a year. That means Keener and Hernandez have each had a hand in preparing more than 4 million meals.

“I know that some people tend to look down on food-service work,” Stumblingbear said. “But in our (American Indian) culture, being of service to others is an honorable thing. These people (Keener, Hernandez) are providers.”

Video and television production instructor Bill Curtis, left, talks with Haskell Indian Nations University student Jerad Roberts, 22, as they work on a final project Wednesday.

They’re also traditionalists.

“Both of them can walk in the woods, pick plants, and walk in the kitchen and cook them,” Stumblingbear said. “They are taking so much knowledge with them.”

Bill Curtis, 58, has taught classes in video and television production at Haskell since 1984.

“When I came here, I thought I’d stay three or four years and move on,” he said. “The next thing you know, it’s been 21 years.”

When he arrived, Curtis said, Haskell had a production studio filled with equipment that had been idle for seven years. “Nothing worked except the lights,” he said.

Gradually, he cobbled together enough equipment to make instructional videos for the U.S. Forest Service, which led to other projects for federal and tribal governments. The projects now bankroll Curtis’ classes.

“Since 1990, everything except my salary – equipment, upgrades and repairs – has paid for itself,” he said.

Curtis said he’s retiring in hopes of freeing up time for more projects.

“I get a lot of calls,” he said.

Haskell employee Georgia Keener talks with Andrew Cole, a student from Roland, Okla., about what was he doing for the holidays. Keener came to Haskell as a student in 1961 and ended up as the head cook at the university.

In the wake of rumored budget cuts, it’s unclear whether or how soon Curtis will be replaced.

“He’s certainly going to be missed,” said Venida Chenault, vice president in charge of academic affairs at Haskell. “His leaving creates a gap that will be difficult to fill.”

A graduate of Utah State University, Curtis is non-Indian. Hernandez and Keener are Cherokee from northeast Oklahoma.

“My family was very poor,” Keener said. “Growing up, I had to walk three miles – some of it through the woods – to catch the school bus.”

For Hernandez, the walk was two miles.

“But that was only until the principal got some guardrails put on the back of his pickup truck,” she said. “After that, we got to ride in the back.”

Keener and Hernandez said they would be forever grateful to Haskell and the opportunities it offered.

“This has been my life here,” Hernandez said. She plans to move to Mexico, where she and her husband have built a seven-room house.

Keener hopes to spend more time with her mother, who lives in Oklahoma.