Behind the counter with Twila Sylvia

By Dora Totoian | March 27, 2018 6:03pm
Twila is 87 years old and has lived in St. John's for 55 years. She is a well seasoned employee, and has been working for Bon Appétit for 19 years. Her job, assigned specifically by Kirk Mustain, consists of cleaning tables and striking up conversations with students, who she lovingly refers to as her "grandkids".
Media Credit: Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Walk into the Commons around lunchtime, and in between students sitting down to eat taco bowls and salads, you’ll see gray-haired, smiling Twila Sylvia walking around, wiping down tables and stopping to chat with students. 

That’s because Bon Appetit general manager Kirk Mustain told her that was exactly her job — talking to people. Sylvia, 87, has been at UP for 19 years and began working here at the same time as Mustain. She remembers when the Commons food was $5 all-you-can-eat style and when Bon App even sold ice cream at mealtimes. When the Commons was remodeled and the menu switched in 2008, Mustain told Sylvia that her new job was to wipe down tables and talk to students at lunch. Sylvia considers it the perfect job. 

“I would not work anywhere else, I swear,” Sylvia said. “My son says, ‘Mom, when are you going to quit work?’ ‘When I die.’” 

Sylvia grew up on a farm in eastern Oregon and moved to the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland when she was 14. At the age of 17, she married a cook in the Navy, with whom she had three children. Later, she raised two more kids of her own and three stepsons. She said that living alone is too quiet, so she lives with one of her sons and his girlfriend in St. John’s. 

She said her own son doesn’t quite understand what she does at work for four hours a day, and she replies plainly to him: Talk and visit her “grandkids,” which is how she refers to UP students. Though she said that she’s terrible with names and likely won’t remember your name if she talks to you, the students are the brightest part of her day. 

“I just enjoy all of you,” Sylvia said. “I guess it gives me a purpose in life. I just say, ‘I’ve got all of the grandkids up here.’” 

Sylvia explained that she can tell when students are stressed around exam time and tries to take their minds off of school (some kids study too much, in her opinion). She also dresses up for Halloween — she was Raggedy Ann last year — and Christmas to bring some seasonal cheer to people’s days. 

With her friendly demeanor, she’s also made plenty of non-student friends in her time at UP. She started working at the same time as a few of her coworkers, watched her kids grow up alongside some of them and even goes on walks with some outside of work. Two years ago, Bon App threw her an 85th birthday party, complete with a giant cake and photo booth. Sylvia knows she’s appreciated at UP, proven by a note she saw a student scribble and leave on a Commons table a few weeks ago. 

“This one (student) wrote, ‘Twila, she is the shit. She needs a raise, and if anybody doesn’t believe so, I’ll fight them,’” Sylvia said. “I took that as a compliment.”