STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mix positive attitude with strong work ethic, and throw in a dash of love for cooking. Season with enthusiasm for Mississippi State University and its students. Marinate for 60 years.
This recipe makes a one-of-a-kind employee — Henry Isaac, long-time cook in Perry Cafeteria.
He is irreplaceable, said Bill Broyles, assistant vice president for student affairs. Isaac’s passion for serving students and doing his job well simply put him in a class by himself.
“Henry’s devotion to the students of Mississippi State is just unmatched,” Broyles said. “He’s an inspiration to the entire Student Affairs family because all we have to do is look at him to see what devotion to students looks like. It’s always about serving the students, and Henry’s an inspiration that we can all learn from.”
After starting work at the university in 1953, Isaac is celebrating his years of work at Perry Cafeteria. He retired in 1994 after 41 years of service, but he just couldn’t stay away, so he returned as a part-time employee, he said.
“They needed somebody, and I always love to work. So I end up staying around,” he said. “I really count Mississippi State as home. When Mississippi State needs me, I come and I’ll stay.”
Broyles agreed, explaining he would be surprised if he didn’t continue to run into Isaac on campus.
“I look forward to seeing Henry at work next week and next month and next year. He shows no signs of slowing down, and it’s clear to me he really loves what he’s doing. Every day, Henry’s excited about coming to work,” Broyles said.
Isaac started working on the campus grounds with his father in the 1950s; they hauled trash together.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t like this job.’ So in the fall, I came to the cafeteria, and I started washing glasses,” Isaac said. “Then I said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to do something better,’ so I started helping them cook. When I saw what had to be done, I just started doing it.”
During his years at the university, Isaac has been part of many historical moments. He recalled during his celebration on Thursday that one of the most significant moments may have been when he helped basketball players sneak off campus to play in the 1963 NCAA Tournament, now known as “The Game of Change.”
“When Mississippi State won the Southeastern Conference in 1963, they weren’t integrated. They had to go to Chicago to play Loyola (University); they were integrated there. But it was against the law in Mississippi,” Isaac said.
“So, we had a truck we used to haul trash in, and we had to take the basketball team and load them into that truck. We took the team and put them on the private plane. If we got caught, we’d have gone to jail. People wanted to stop us, but we had them gone already.”
MSU lost the basketball game, but the Bulldogs and the people who helped get the team to the game sowed the seeds for integration and reconciliation not just on campus, but throughout the state and nation, Isaac said.
The key to overcoming negative situations, no matter what they may be, is to maintain a positive attitude, he added.
“You’ve got to have good heart,” he said. “You’ve got to smile when they’re talking bad. I love to work, I love to see the students taken care of, and I love Mississippi State. I never cared how rough it got; I knew there was a better day coming.
“I really didn’t have many bad days. You’ve got to love people; then, people will love you.”
Working at MSU for more than half a century has been a wonderful experience for him, and Isaac doesn’t really feel like 60 years have passed since he first started working on campus, he said.
“I’ve enjoyed my stay; it seems like just a few years ago since I came. I love to cook and take care of these kids,” he said.