Doug Robinson: Former lunch lady Lily Garcia goes to Washington to run for the NEA

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 2:10 p.m. MST

Lily Eskelsen, National Education Association vice president

National Education Association

WASHINGTON — Stories about Lily Eskelsen Garcia tend to bill her as the former lunch lady who turned in her hair net and went to Washington, where she rubs shoulders with presidents and members of Congress when she isn't traveling the country giving hundreds of speeches in the cause of education. It’s a story no one can resist, and nobody’s gotten more mileage out of the lunch lady business since Adam Sandler.

It’s a story so good it sounds made up, and the story would seem only to get better if you didn’t know that the last few years had been so riddled with personal tragedy and trials. Notwithstanding, Eskelsen’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings will continue this summer when she is almost assuredly elected president of the National Education Association.

But, really, wasn’t this inevitable?

The 58-year-old Eskelsen, the current NEA vice president, is running unopposed (would-be candidates have until April to declare), but who would want to take on this woman? A decade ago, she ran for secretary-treasurer of the NEA and claimed a whopping 78 percent of the vote, the first time a four-candidate race was decided on the first ballot. Eskelsen has it all — intelligence, looks, charisma, passion and wit, and she can sing, play the guitar and write, too, all of which she brings to bear on her mission for education.

Sure, she’s the lunch lady, but that only scratches the surface of her rise from nowhere, so let’s try again: Lily Eskelsen Garcia — immigrant's daughter, sharecropper’s granddaughter, former lunch lady, former folk singer, former congressional candidate, former Utah Teacher of the Year. She originally left the classroom to help a fellow teacher, and 25 years later she is still doing much the same thing.

“You don’t plan these things,” she says. “I assumed I would retire as a Utah teacher. And I think I would’ve been very happy. The truth is I’m a pretty happy person. I’m going to be happy doing whatever I am doing. I was a happy lunch lady.”

She never even planned to go to college until someone mentioned it, and that was the way things would always happen: Someone would see her abilities and suggest a direction and she would take that path.

Here’s the thing about that lunch lady tag: It’s absolutely true. It’s not some marketing creation or exaggeration.

Lilia Laura Pace was about to start her senior year at Box Elder High School when she met Ruel Eskelsen, a local kid who had joined the Army after graduation that spring and was posted in Colorado. “We fell in love writing letters,” she says. They married shortly after she graduated, and they moved into a basement apartment in Colorado Springs.

The oldest of six kids, Lily had done a lot of baby-sitting in her youth and thrived at it. She would put on plays for the kids and create art projects for them, among other things. “It’s what I wanted to do, work with kids,” she says. “I assumed I would have 10 kids. I liked big families.”

When she and Ruel arrived in Colorado Springs, she looked for a job working with children. The closest she got was the lunch lady position in a school cafeteria. “I was the salad girl,” she says. “I could not be trusted with hot food. Salad girl — that was the title. And I did the dishes. I had the hair nets and the white orthopedic shoes and a food handler’s permit.”

She noticed that the cafeteria workers interacted with the kids as they came through the line and Lily joined in, teasing them playfully and calling them by name — “Hey, Super Man. Hey, Cutie,” she’d call to them. The kids loved it; she wanted more.

Within a year, she found a job as an aide to a special-ed teacher. Another year passed and the teacher, noting Lily’s way with kids, asked if she had considered college as a bridge to a teaching job.

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