“Hi guys,” Sharon Araujo said casually as she walked into a surprise retirement party in her honor on Thursday in the main lobby of the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. If she was surprised, she hid it well.
Chris Porterfield, director of the food and nutrition department at the hospital, greeted some 40 people — colleagues, friends, and family — there to honor Ms. Araujo, who had come in to pick up her last pay check after working at the hospital for 35 years. He said that the hospital wanted to recognize an exemplary worker who was also active and widely respected in the community.
“She was the matriarch of the kitchen,” Mr. Porterfield said, “and a great role model. She’s quiet, and works behind the scenes, but she cares very deeply about her family, this hospital, and her co-workers.”
Mr. Porterfield recalled Ms. Araujo’s reaction to a new menu that he introduced a few years back. “She told me ‘You and your damn bistro menu,’” he said. But they apparently came to a happy accommodation. “Sharon,” he said, ” I’ve learned a lot from you. We all have.”
Then it was Ms. Araujo’s turn to speak. “Thank you, you all have been great,” she said. “Even when I got p.o.ed at you at times, I still love you.” Guffaws and applause followed.
Born in Boston in 1943, Ms. Araujo has lived at the same address on Summer Street in Vineyard Haven ever since. She points out that she is not a native, because she wasn’t actually born here, but she’s lived her since she was one week old, and her father was born on the Island. Ten years ago, she built a new house behind the old homestead where she had grown up and her father before her.
After graduating from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1961, Ms. Araujo was accepted to nursing school in Boston, but her heart wasn’t in it and she never matriculated. “You know, it was one of those things where you apply and you kind of hope you don’t get it,” she recalled.
Married in 1962, Ms. Araujo started a family soon after. Her four children range in age from 48 to 33 years old, and she has 12 grandchildren. When she could, she worked part time for the Wampanoag Tribe’s Outreach Program. Her pride in her involvement with the tribe is obvious.
At the hospital, Ms. Araujo first worked as a diet aide on and off until 1977. Before she knew it, she was a full-time cook. “Somebody quit, and Tom Scanlon, the manager, said, ‘Sharon, you want to cook?’ And I said sure and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
It’s easy to imagine that Ms. Araujo was all business when she was at work in the hospital kitchen, but with a twinkle. Chances are the people she fed smiled right along with her when they dove into meals she made.
Linda Dixon, who leases a room in Sharon’s home, has been a friend for 27 years. “She’s just the consummate friend — dedicated,” Ms. Dixon said. ” She always had pride in what she did as a cook, and as a friend.”
Beverly Tucker of Oak Bluffs has worked at the hospital for 43 years. Of Ms. Araujo, she said, “She’s a good worker, she never takes breaks, and she goes and helps other people. And she’s a good cook.”
Kenny Ivory of Edgartown is a maintenance mechanic at the hospital, where he has worked for 35 years. “She always took care of us,” he said of Ms. Araujo. “If we were out snowplowing at 5 am, she’d call us in to feed us and make sure we were dressed right.”
As the hospital has grown and changed over during her tenure in the kitchen, Ms. Araujo has kept pace, Mr. Ivory said. “They tried to come up with food people wanted, and she’d do it. Change is hard, but she adjusted to it.”
Far from just adapting to change, Ms. Araujo led the way at times. She was very active in petitioning for a union, which the hospital resisted at first. When it was in place, she became a shop steward. “It gave us more job security and helped with benefits,” she said. ” And on this little island, you need all the help you can get.”
In the kitchen, though, she stuck to her guns. She recalled one food manager who wanted to institute menu changes, like Portobello stacks, that she considered a bit radical. “What the hell is this, a bistro? Some of those young men would get me mad at times, but I learned a lot from them and we got on an even keel.
“I’m a meatloaf and mashed potato girl. But I conformed. Still, every once in a while, I’d sneak my kale soup and meatloaf in there.”
Outside the workplace, the Wampanoag Tribe has been a major focus for Ms. Araujo. She was on the Tribal Council for many years, and she still serves on the tribe’s human services committee.
Looking forward to her retirement, Ms. Araujo is not worried about being idle after cooking an estimated 600,000 meals over the last 35 years. “I’ll do some crafting — beading, making dreamcatchers. And I’ll follow my grandkids in hockey and football, so I’m all set. They’ll have me going east, west, and everywhere picking up, dropping off. There will be no dull moment.
I’m going to the elder center and do the things that elders do — Tai Chi, take watercolor classes — in other words, keep moving. And maybe invent something new for them — I don’t know, maybe break-dancing. That would be different.”
“Even though I didn’t want a fuss, I loved the party and I want to thank everybody,” Ms. Araujo said about last Thursday’s gathering. For those who enjoyed some of the estimated 600,000 meals that she prepared over 35 years, the feeling is most likely mutual.