Pam Blakeney was probably a little bumfuzzled when her managers didn’t want her to cancel a staff meeting.
But they had a good reason for wanting to keep it on the calendar — it was actually a surprise retirement party for their fearless leader.
Blakeney, 62, will hang up her apron as the director of nutrition services for Bartow County Schools, a position she’s held for eight years, March 29, and her central office colleagues, cafe managers and friends celebrated the next chapter of her life March 12 at a party at the central office.
The gathering featured well wishes, an assortment of food and a table full of gifts, including coffee mugs, a Georgia crock pot, gift cards and handmade items from some of the schools.
“I thought it was very nice,” said Blakeney, who got choked up a time or two while opening her presents. “It was very sweet. Couldn’t make a speech because I wouldn’t have been good at it.”
The Cedartown resident, who’s served the school system for 28 years, said the party was a surprise until she tried to cancel the Tuesday staff meeting last week.
“I had a managers meeting [scheduled], and then Sunday, I said, ‘Well, I don’t have much on the agenda so I’m going to cancel the meeting’ so I sent a thing out that said ‘cancel,’ and my staff says, ‘You can’t cancel the meeting,’” she said. “So I didn’t know until shortly before that I couldn’t cancel the meeting.”
Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said Blakeney’s influence in the school system will be felt for many years.
“Her creativity, innovation and leadership allowed our nutrition services department to be recognized as one of the best in the state,” he said. “I appreciate her commitment to excellence and her desire to help every SNS employee succeed.”
Blakeney said she told her managers about her retirement at their January staff meeting, just before the school board meeting, where the board was to approve her request.
Her managers didn’t seem to be ready for her announcement.
“Heartbreaking, it really is,” Woodland Middle Cafe Manager April Silver said. “We [she and Cass Middle Cafe Manager Candace Bowman] just made eye contact, and it was like ‘uhh, oh no.’”
“Just dismay and shock,” Bowman added.
The two managers couldn’t say enough good things about Blakeney as a supervisor.
“She’s great,” said Silver, who’s worked in the nutrition department since 2006. “She’s stern, but she’s soft at the same time. She’s great all-around. And she worked from the bottom up so she has a story. She understands everything that we go through every day. Without a doubt, she’s been an inspiration.”
Bowman said Blakeney “leads by example.”
“She’s the best mentor I’ve ever had,” she said. “She’ll give you a whipping and hug you at the same time.”
Blakeney said she chose to end her career now because “it’s just time.”
“It’s time for me to retire,” she said. “It’s time for me to let somebody else take over. I’ve done what I set out to accomplish, and I think I’m leaving the program in a good place.”
As for her proudest accomplishment as nutrition services director, Blakeney said it’s “probably our recognition as far as in the state and in the nation for the program changes we’ve made.”
“A lot of things, we probably already did, but we shouted out more so that I’m proud of,” she said. “We do have a good program. We do serve good food. We do change it up. I’m proud of that.”
Doing their own marketing and having a strong presence on social media “really changed how people view us,” she said.
“People think you’re just a bunch of lunchroom ladies throwing some food on a plate, and that’s not it,” she said. “We actually do try very hard to get something the kids will eat, and you’ve got find something that you can get in that costs under 3 bucks with labor. People don’t realize it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Trading her career for a life of leisure is going to be harder than Blakeney thought it would be.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “Looking forward to what’s next, but I will miss a lot of people.”
Especially her staff.
“Well, I’ll miss them,” she said. “I’ll miss all of them. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. Bartow County, the whole system really, is a very family-oriented organization to be in as far as school systems go, in my experience. In talking with others, I think it is.”
Blakeney began her nutrition services career in 1988 as a substitute in the White Elementary School cafeteria.
“It kind of feels like full circle because one of my first jobs there was to rearrange the freezer,” she said. “I built them a new freezer last year — or I had one built.”
By the end of 1988, Blakeney had earned a full-time position as a cafe manager.
“I already had restaurant management experience so it wasn’t like I didn’t have any experience,” she said.
Most of her cafeteria work was done at Emerson Elementary, where she worked for 12 years. She left the school system for two years then came back in 2002 to the central office.
She started as an operations specialist, finished her master’s degree and became the director in 2011.
Blakeney said she was hooked on school food service as soon as she started substituting.
“I realized that’s where I wanted to be,” she said. “I enjoy cooking; I enjoy working with kids. I had children, of course, and I worked with Boy Scouts with them and so enjoyed just interacting with kids. Most people that are in any kind of school nutrition program will tell you once it gets in your blood, if it gets in your blood, you’re going to stay in it.”
As for her retirement plans, Blakeney said she has two trips planned in April: one to Missouri to visit her oldest son, Matt, a captain in the Army and commander of a basic training unit, and watch his unit’s graduation and one to a family reunion.
“After that, I don’t have a whole lot planned,” she said. “April’s about as far as I’ve got.”
Blakeney, who has another son, Mark, a Cobb County police officer, added she and her husband, Roger, probably will go out west sometime this summer to visit her home state of Montana.