Augustana honors Leslie Dennison with tree memorial

Augustana+honors+Leslie+Dennison+with+tree+memorial

Thea Gonzales

In the Gerber Center dining hall, past the food stations, kitchens and offices, a noticeable voice is missing. After 38 years of service as a dining hall worker, Leslie Dennison passed away in the Branson, MO tragedy as a duck boat with her and her granddaughter capsized in late July. Though her granddaughter made it out safely, Dennison did not.

On Monday, Sept. 17, loved ones and Augustana staff alike gathered outside the south-facing doors of the Gerber Center and dedicated a magnolia tree in memory of Dennison, who had been an employee of the college since she was 26 years old.

Amy Roehrs, dining services accounts coordinator, is coming upon her 10th year as a dining hall employee, a year she says is much different because a valuable piece is missing.

“She was my four o’clock hot date everyday. At four o’clock, she would always walk past the office and see if there was anybody in there. If there wasn’t, we would sit and talk until it was time for me to leave at 4:30 and her to go to dinner,” Roehrs said. “We would solve all the problems of the world. She loved her family and her Augie family.”

Brad Foley, retail manager of dining services, worked closely with Dennison during his 20 years at the college. According to him, their relationship was special – much like that of an older sister and younger brother because of how sassy Dennison could be.

A magnolia tree planted in honor of Leslie Dennison. Photo by Brady Johnson.

“When she used to get mad at me, we’d banter back and forth. It was almost like an older aunt to a younger nephew or an older sister to a younger brother. She’d get mad and would point like she was sending me to my room – ‘Go to your room, Brad!’” Foley said, “Other times, one of our other favorite jokes was if a day wasn’t going so well and we’d start getting upset, my face – being Irish-Catholic – turns red easily. She’d always say, ‘Your blood pressure, Brad. You gotta relax.’”

According to Roehrs, dining services has been overwhelmed by the love and support that the Augustana community, from parents to alumni, have given.

“I think one thing that’s really interesting is even the flowers at the funeral were from some of the sororities and fraternities. I’ve gotten a lot of parents calling when they make meal selections for their kids asking to see if everything’s okay. There’s this huge outpouring of condolences from everybody,” Roehrs said. “It’s not that she just touched people and they brushed it off. She really affected people.”

One of those people is alumnus Madison Vandersee (’18), who worked with Dennison for three years in the dining center.

“This last year, we worked together over all the different breaks: fall, spring, winter. The biggest thing was that she was the hardest-working person I knew. She has worked so tirelessly but was always talking with so much love about her family always and sharing stories and smiling,” Vandersee said.

Through Dennison’s 38 years of experience, Foley said there wasn’t much the woman didn’t know about the college or its traditions.

“After being here as long as she has, she was just a vast resource of old Augustana – the traditions, the different things that we do, the endowment society. She was very knowledgable about our big groups on campus,” Foley said. “She knew most of the major recipes by heart. She didn’t even need to look them up, she’d done them so many times. She knew in her head what exactly needed to be done.”

Now working in New Mexico, Vandersee said Dennison understood just how Augustana worked. Through all of its changes, Dennison adapted, and her resilience made her valuable.

“I think that she was just a really strong representation of what Augustana is – she’s been through so many of the changes at this school. She’d been here for 38 years and had been such a help along the way as Augie has grown and has adjusted to many different jobs,” Vandersee said. “She always told stories about how Westerlin had a dining hall and what that was like. She adapted to every situation.”

As a worker, Foley said she was a “jack of all trades.” According to him, she could have been put at any of the stations and still know exactly what to do. Though her main section was salads, Dennison could often be found anywhere in the dining hall, offering help to anyone who needed it and covering last-minute shifts in any department.

“You’d walk in on certain days and she’d be out in Bell because someone had called in sick,” Foley said. “She’d just be making pizzas like she’d done it her whole life – which she had.”

Augustana staff, students, and faculty watch as Leslie Dennison’s brother, George Lawton, and mother, Kay Lawton, touch the magnolia tree. Photo by Brady Johnson.

Her friends in the dining center say that she loved to dance to loud music in the kitchens. Though she sometimes had an “angry” face, she was always sweet and her sass was never malicious. She was proud of her family and her dogs. She was a survivor of a major heart attack. She had three sons and two dogs with the same name. She liked to laugh and joke around. She wanted to retire in Branson next to the water.

“It’s funny to turn the corner and not hear a voice,” Roehrs said. “We know that she’s not here. You’d walk around the corner and hear her in the bakery. She was very sassy, wonderfully sassy. We’re missing a very valuable piece.”

As Dennison’s life has been honored at the tree-naming ceremony and condolences and condolences are continually being wished upon the dining services staff, Foley, one of Dennison’s closest friends, said he missed her.

“To tell you the truth, it was hard coming back to work. I had been on vacation, and it was hell coming back that Monday after the funeral,” Foley said. “But everyday’s gotten a little bit better.”