‘Grandma’ still working at Mich. McDonald’s at age 92

Judy Putnam
Lansing State Journal

Webberville, Mich. — Almost everyone who works with Mary Smith calls her “Grandma.”

At age 92, Smith is a beloved employee of the Webberville McDonald’s, just north of Interstate 96’s Webberville exit.

Long after her peers retired or died, Smith keeps going. She rises five days a week to do three hours of food prep work at the fast food location. On occasion, she gives up sleep to pull an all-nighter at a casino, but still manages to make it to work on time.

She’s worked there for 15 years.

“I love it. I love my job,” she said. “I like the people, too. They’re all very nice to me. I’ve never had anyone speak harsh to me,”

In fact, someone always greets her with a fresh cup of black coffee as she starts her shift. Co-workers walk her to her car if it’s slippery or help her lift heavier objects.

“She’s a great worker. She’s wonderful,” said restaurant manager Alisha Stefanski. “She comes through and makes sure she gives us hugs every morning. ... We all love her.”

At a restaurant known for giving teens their first jobs, Smith defies age expectations, preparing food from 7-10 a.m. five days a week. It’s a job that requires her to stand as she preps and to travel back and forth to the walk-in refrigerator.

Smith is pretty steady on her feet. And she rolls a mean breakfast burrito, about 150 of them each day she works. Over a decade of doing that job, she’s probably rolled about 400,000 of the breakfast item.

Not bad for a 50-year smoker of unfiltered cigarettes (she quit at age 72) and a survivor of ovarian cancer at age 25 and breast cancer at 80.

There have been several stories in recent years around the globe about the oldest McDonald’s worker, anywhere from 88 to 95 years old, but the corporation doesn’t comment on age so it’s unclear if she can claim the title of oldest worker.

Mike Dickerson, who owns 11 McDonald’s locations, including the Webberville restaurant, said she definitely holds the distinction of the oldest worker in his restaurants.

“She’s just a sweetheart. She’s in every day that she’s scheduled. She’s just a pleasure to be around,” Dickerson said.

Smith was born in Colorado as Mary Korrey but moved with her family to Lansing at the age of 2, in 1927. Her mother died when she was a newborn and her father, an immigrant from Lebanon, moved to Lansing to find a wife among Lansing’s Lebanese immigrants.

She met her husband, Norman, a plumber, in 1944 when he drove by her walking along the street. He yelled “Hey, Mary” only guessing at her name. They married two weeks later.

Because her cancer treatment left her infertile, the couple adopted two boys, Ted and Eugene. She has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family also ran a harness-racing business for 30 years, Dietz Creek Farm, a 40-acre site in Webberville. For a while, they had a second farm in Florida.

Norman died just six months shy of their 50th anniversary.

Smith worked on and off in the food industry, starting in 1943 with her brother’s restaurant, Sip-N-Snack in Lansing, where she was a waitress.

She later ran a deli with son Ted, 66, called Mary’s Place in Webberville. She cooked.

Her son Eugene, 61, said his mom is a fantastic chef, specializing in Lebanese cuisine. He said she never meets a stranger, at least not for long.

The McDonald’s job fits with his mother’s outgoing personality, and it gives her spending money for her casino trips where she plays the penny slots.

“It is her lifeline for living, to be out and about,” Eugene said.

The day after she closed Mary’s Place in 2002, after a five-year run, she walked into McDonald’s and asked if they were hiring older workers. It is just a quarter-mile from her home. She filled out an application and started the next day, she said. She was 77.

Jen Minot, a crew chief, has worked with her since Smith’s first day.

Minot not only calls Smith “Grandma,” she actually considers Smith to be “the grandmother I never had.”

“She’s a huge inspiration. She’s an amazing person, and everybody in Webberville knows her,” she said.

Ruth Elzerman at 67 is the only coworker who refuses to call her “Grandma.”

“I’m too old. I call her ‘Mom’,” Elzerman said. “She’s wonderful to work with. She keeps it light.”

Smith has had tough times in her life but she said it’s always better to focus on the positive.

Her best work-life advice?

“When you get up in the morning, you look in the mirror and you smile. Then you’re smiling for the rest of the day,” she said. Then she smiled.