DeArmond is describing Alicia Lezama, a sprightly octogenarian with sparkly glasses and jangly bracelets who, after 27 years as a standout among Northeastern Dining Services employees, will retire on Wednesday, Jan. 13. “She made home seem not so far away,” tweeted @neugrads upon learning of her departure.
Lezama, who immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua more than 30 years ago, started as a dishwasher in Speare Hall in 1989, quickly moved to the serving line, and within a month became the warm, smiling presence behind the checkout counter at dining halls across campus, including Stetson East and West. Her responsibilities ran the gamut: from polishing the silver for Commencement, back when Northeastern Dining catered the event, to working the concession stands at football and basketball games. “I did everything!” she proudly exclaims.
Swiping card after card at the checkout desk, Lezama has greeted students, faculty, and staff by name for decades with enveloping hugs and warm conversation: “Hi! Good morning! How was rowing practice?” she would ask the shivering DeArmond and teammate Marina Remick,’19, fresh off the Charles River. “You are hurt, I’m going to call the manager and say, ‘Please, can you help bring him food?’” she would tell a lone student on crutches.
Her inspiring character became the stuff of legend. “She has a certain charisma that can lighten up your day,” says Greg Houghton, Northeastern’s director of external events and conference housing, who first met Lezama when he served as a residence director. “She’s a legacy and an institution.”
Living in Brockton, Massachusetts, for the past 14 years, Lezama would rise at 4 a.m. to catch a 5 a.m. bus to Ashmont station—her son-in-law would drive her to the station—and once there board a second bus to Ruggles station. She would then walk to Northeastern to begin work at 7 a.m. Finished with her shift at 3 p.m., she’d catch the commuter rail back to Brockton. Sometimes, when the weather was bad (an understatement for last winter), the trip home would take two-and-a-half hours.
But even after a nearly 14-hour day, Lezama was not one to sit still. “I’m always looking for something to do,” she says. You could find her in the kitchen cooking dinner for her younger daughter, whose family lives with her, and later in front of the television, catching the news and baseball till 10 p.m. or so. “I love the Red Sox,” she says with a laugh.
What keeps her going? “I love my work,” says Lezama. She cites the cards and notes, often decorated with hearts or flowers, that grateful students give her when they graduate. “They say: ‘Thank you, Alicia, because your smile makes me smile every day.’”
“Every day” is no exaggeration. Come rain, come sleet, come snow, Lezama has shown up at the job: She’s taken maybe three sick days during her entire 27-year tenure. Recently she got caught in the closing doors of a subway car and injured her shoulder; she stayed home only because the daughter who lives with her—Lezama has four children, eight grandchildren, and four great grandchildren—insisted she do so. “I told my daughter, ‘I have to go in,’” says Lezama. “‘There is no one to work in my place!”
So why retirement now? After the terrible winter, Lezama says, “my daughter said, ‘I think it’s enough.’” There was a bit of a personal agenda, too. “You have so much energy,” she told Lezama. “I want a bit more of it.”
That energy will be sorely missed. As Emily O’Brien, MS’11, the residence director overseeing Smith and Kennedy halls, put it in a note to Northeastern Dining: “Alicia’s such a caring woman, and I’m going to miss the little moments we’d share together, talking about family and children. She always made an effort to connect to everyone she interacted with, which has inspired me to pay it forward.”
A reception for Alicia Lezama will be held on Thursday, Jan. 14, from 3-4 p.m. in the Xhibition Kitchen, 11 Speare Place, inside Stetson West Eatery.