Judith Riser sits at the front desk of Liberty Dining Hall every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 6:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. She sits quietly swiping Cougar Cards as College of Charleston students come and go, grabbing lunch between classes and dinner before the library. She always offers a smile. Always offers a “Hi, baby.” And is always quick to joke around.
“Bye, Ms. Judy!” a student said as she walked out the door.
“Bye, baby,” Judy replied. “Behave yourself, now.”
“Yeah, I know you won’t,” Judy joked back.
Judy, known as “Ms. Judy” to college students and faculty, is a Charleston native – born and bred. Charleston is and always has been her home. “I love Charleston; it’s my favorite place,” she said. She has spent all 74 years of her life right here on the peninsula, moving around from King Street to Logan to East Bay.
Judy, her three brothers and one sister were raised and homeschooled by their single mother, who used to work at the Ft. Sumter Hotel down by the Battery. “But that hotel is condos, now,” she said.
Growing up, Judy was always passionate about one thing in particular: Elvis.
“Oh I loved him,” she said. “My mother couldn’t stand him, she didn’t like the way he moved.”
But you did? I asked.
Judy has Elvis everything. Elvis plates in her kitchen, Elvis hand towels in her bathroom, Elvis albums, movies and scrapbooks. The College even brought in an Elvis impersonator to have breakfast with Ms. Judy this past January.
After she graduated from high school, Judy worked in the kitchen at a Catholic school on Broad Street for three years before getting a job working at the College of Charleston cafeteria, which at the time was located in Craig Residence Hall, in 1974. Coincidentally, Arthur Chisolm, one of the cooks who still works in Liberty with Judy, walked through College of Charleston’s doors that same day. According to Judy, they’ve been best friends ever since.
In Craig, Ms. Judy served meals, made the coffee, mopped the floors, cleaned the bathrooms and cracked the pepper. “They told my boss I was the only one who could do the pepper and not sneeze,” she said. “So I did that for five years.”
In 2007, Aramark Catering (and Ms. Judy) moved from the Craig cafeteria to Liberty Dining Hall. She’s been greeting every student and faculty member who walks through those doors ever since.
“She is strictly by the book,” said Dedra Randolph, who has been working with Judy in Liberty for the past five years. “She knows her stuff, after all these years, she still knows her stuff. And that’s the truth.”
The same year that Ms. Judy started working in Craig, Barney Holt crossed the Cistern as a College of Charleston graduate, only to return in 2000 as the Director of Property Management. Since coming back to the College, Holt and Ms. Judy have become increasingly better “buddies.”
“Judy is just one of the gentle souls,” said Holt ‘74, Director of Property Management. “There’s an expression, ‘one of the more gentle angels among us,’ and Judy is one of them. And there’s not many of them.”
Holt talked about the ongoing banter between the two as he came in and out of Liberty’s glass doors. “I eat there a lot, so Judy and I got to know each other pretty well and soon enough just started teasing each other about things,” he said. “I’m a dog guy, and she’s a big cat person, so I always give her the business about cats and why they’re worthless.”
So much so that Judy named one of her three cats after him. Barney’s response? “I told her that was the biggest mistake she would ever make.” Barney, the cat, was a rescue with half of an ear missing who – according to Holt – bites and hisses until he is treated like a king. But Ms. Judy says he’s the “sweetest thing in the world,” and proceeds to feed him steak or salmon dinners on a regular basis.
Judy’s other two cats are named Precious – “she’s the wild one” – and Zoe, who weighs in at 30 pounds.
If not the students themselves, Ms. Judy’s favorite part of the College is basketball. She loves going to the boys’ games and loves the boys themselves even more.
“I’ve been going to the basketball games ever since I’ve been here,” she said. “I just love it.” Up until this past year, Ms. Judy boasted front row seats. Judy remains optimistic about the team’s performance this year. “I just hope it’s better than last year,” she said.
Judy wears a black rubber wristband on her right hand that has “#thechadeffect” written on it in memory of one of her favorite players. When the College lost Chad Cooke, a basketball player, to an unexpected death last winter, Judy was at the memorial.
“His mother thanked me for feeding her child,” Judy said. “He didn’t have a meal plan, so I sometimes brought money and bought him lunch. He was a good kid. He was such a sweetheart.”
Things change in Charleston. Buildings come and go, companies get bought and sold, babies are born and loved ones pass away. The one thing that seems to be a constant for Ms. Judy over the course of her 41 years at the College is that the students are what get her out of bed in the morning.
“I never married,” she said. “So I never had children. These are my children, all of them. And they come back and bring me their children to go to school here, too.” Holt recalls leaving the dining hall one day only to see a woman standing in front of Judy’s desk with her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “The woman said to her, ‘Now Judy, I wanted my daughter to come here and I wanted to introduce her to you because I want her to know who you are. You took such good care of me when I was a student here and you kept me fed and you were such a good friend to me – so I want you to take care of my baby like you took care of me,’” Holt recalled.
There was a recurring theme among interviewees, many of whom spoke to Ms. Judy’s role as both a caretaker and a friend. Rebecca Wiser, class of 1987, remembers Ms. Judy as someone who seemed to always remember everyone’s names. “She seems like she was always there with something good to say,” she said. “[She was] always happy to be there.” Wiser’s son Michael now attends the College and has a chat with Ms. Judy whenever he stops by the dining hall.
Ms. Judy said that the kids and faculty are her very favorite part of the job. “They make my life,” she said. “I mean, that’s what I’m here for. I have a blast here.”
And she doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.
To some, she’s a longtime employee of the College. To others, she’s a friend. To others, yet, she’s a maternal figure – providing warmth and care to all of those who take the time to get to know her.
So do. Take the time to get to know her. Stop and say “Good morning” the next time you swipe your Cougar Card at the front desk of Liberty. As Holt said, “There’s a real diamond sittin’ there.”
“It seems like everyone knows you,” I said at the end of our interview, after countless students and faculty made the extra effort to say hello or good morning as they walked by her desk.
“Yeah, that’s what they say,” said Ms. Judy.
*This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Yard.