Sodexo worker says goodbye
Come Dec. 17, 86-year-old cafeteria worker Julia Prociak will close her locker and clock out for the last time, concluding a campus presence that predates many campus buildings.
“When I first started here, I was all over the place,” Prociak said.
“We had to plate meals individually. There weren’t that many students here back then, though.”
Prociak began working at Pitt-Johnstown in 1975, and has seen her share of Pitt-Johnstown changes.
“Julia’s definitely seen a lot of people come and go throughout the years,” said Sodexo manager Victor Costlow. “A lot of managers, too.”
Costlow said Prociak is not only a hardworking employee, but also a dedicated one.
“I can probably count on one hand the number of times she’s called off in this many years,” he said. “And she’s always willing to come to work whenever needed, whatever she’s doing.
“She will be missed.”
After graduating from high school, Prociak got a job at a chair factory in Johnstown’s Hornerstown neighborhood, making $18 a week. When the factory closed, she went to work at Fort Stanwix Hotel along the city’s Main Street.
It was around this time that the Pitt-Johnstown campus was in the planning stages of relocating from its “Asphalt Campus” in the city’s Moxham neighborhood to Richland Township. Once the move was complete, Fort Stanwix soon went out of business and its site was used by Lee Hospital.
Out of work and in need of a job, Prociak bought a 12-room bar and hotel along Railroad Street.
“I went into business for myself. I bought the Imperial Hotel in 1957,” she said.
But when a church bought the building 15 years later, Prociak was forced to close down the hotel and find work elsewhere. It wasn’t long before she decided to ask her younger sister, Rose Prachick, whether she could get her a job.
Rose was working for a food service company at UPJ.
Both Julia and Rose, who is only two years Julia’s junior, were born in Jerome as the last two of a 10-child family to Polish parents.
And despite the different spellings, the sisters surname is the same.
“You can blame my older brothers for that,” Julia said. She isn’t sure whether the name was Anglicized when her elder brothers went to school and changed it, or if they just started spelling it that way on their own and the other kids followed suit.
“But when I took my birth certificate to get my work papers, the lady at the desk yelled at me and told me to always spell it like it was on the paper.
“Now I’m the only one who spells it right.”
When Julia began working at UPJ, the only dining hall on campus was in the Student Union, and the cafeteria’s back wall had not yet been extended past the beverage stations, which Costlow said was the result of 1981 renovations that nearly doubled the eating area’s size.
Back then, though, the food line went right through the kitchen.
“We didn’t have all these round tables in here, either,” Julia said. “There were long tables and rows of benches.”
But the physical changes aren’t the only ones that were made in Prociak’s time at UPJ. The food service company contracted by the college also changed hands half a dozen times before Sodexo finally acquired it.
Tuck Shop worker Darwen Kull, who has worked on campus for 23 years, said those companies must have liked the work Prociak did because they kept her around for so many years.
“She cares, and puts out a nice product,” Kull said. “She means a lot to UPJ, and she will be missed.”
Prociak’s work ethic is old school – other Sodexo workers said they often saw her picking up other workers’ tasks when she finished hers, and she rarely paused to rest or chitchat.
Prociak said her attitude likely is the product of having been told from a young age to value her job and work hard.
“I’m busy all the time,” she said. “I don’t like the stand around. My mother taught me that when you go to work, you work.
“But I like it very much here, and I’m still enjoying it. The students are really nice and I get along with everybody. I don’t like to argue.”
Julia said she’s retiring because she figures someone else needs the job more than her.
“I think these people are getting tired of looking at me,” she said. “But I don’t know what I’m gonna do after I quit.”
She reminisced about how she used to pass the time in younger days, when she was the same age as the college students whose food she prepares throughout the week.
“I loved to dance,” she said, but mentioned that many of the young men who used to take her dancing when she was young have since died.
However, Julia doesn’t plan to settle into retirement immediately.
“I’m gonna get someone to go driving with me. I’ll go to Ohio, New York … visit my niece,” she said.
But the one person Julia said she will not miss when she retires is the person who helped get her a job: her still-fellow cafeteria worker, now-housemate and younger sister, Rose.
“Why would I miss her? I see her every day!” she said.
The two don’t even coordinate schedules so they can ride to work together.
“I think it’s stupid. When I go home, I take (U.S. Route) 219. Her car has problems, and I make sure it hasn’t broken down and left her stranded on the road.”
As she moved toward the cafeteria so she could gather her things and leave Thursday, Julia paused to sit with some of her coworkers on a break.
She tugged at the Christmas-themed antlers worn by one employee and swatted at another when he pretended to pull a seat out from under her.
“I’ve known many of these people a long time,” she said. “I’m going to miss seeing them every day.”
Cafeteria worker Nancy Garlena, who has been working in food services for 20 years, said she is thankful that she and Julia live close enough that they can keep seeing each other after Julia retires.
“I’ll take you driving. We know where the bar is, don’t we, Julie?” Garlena said with a laugh.