Article on Miss Kunioka by Lee Cataluna

Everybody loves this lunch lady

by Lee Cataluna

Imagine putting together a lunch for friends from high school. You invite the funny boy, that smart girl, maybe members of whatever team you played on. Would you invite the lunch lady?

If you went to University High back in the day, you absolutely would. Shizumi Kunioka, retired cafeteria manager for the school, gets invited to luncheons, class reunions and alumni events all the time. Everybody remembers Miss Kunioka, and, though she is now 97 years old, she can recall the faces and names of kids she fed 60 years ago.

“You’re Regina … Chun!” Kunioka exclaimed as she was welcomed into a gathering of ’61 graduates. “How come everybody is all gray now?” she joked, looking around the room.

She told some that they had put on weight since high school. She asked others about their siblings, whom she also remembered. Kunioka has been retired since 1982, yet for many she is the face of their school.

“I used to love the baked spaghetti with the cheese on top,” Bobbie Ahuna Wakatake told her.

“I liked the corn chowder,” Lucille Lum Massicot said. “It was really thick.”

Kunioka grew up in the tiny red-dirt town of Pakala, Kauai. She came to the University of Hawaii to study home economics, and paid for her room and board by working and cooking in the houses of well-heeled Manoa residents. In 1945, after getting her degree, she started at the cafeteria at the Teacher’s College Lab School, also called University High, across University Avenue from the Manoa campus.

Back then, cafeteria duty for the students came up every other month or so, starting in fourth grade through senior year. On their designated days, students would report to the cafeteria early in the morning and stay until after 2 p.m. They would do things like help spoon the food onto trays or spread butter on the bread, but the job everyone seems to remember is washing out the garbage cans outside.

“Cafeteria duty was the only time in school that we worked for somebody,” Harry Tanaka said. “Miss Kunioka taught us how to work. If you didn’t do it right, she would get on you. She instilled in us a good work ethic.”

“What I remember is she gave me leftovers to take home,” Rauyl Nakayama said.

Kunioka’s most controversial dish was a shepherd’s pie made with lamb that some loved and some loathed. Everybody liked the Spanish rice and pigs-in-a-blanket, but her most beloved creation was a dessert called “ivory Jell-O” made with sweetened condensed milk, which she topped with a special chocolate sauce the graduates have been trying to replicate for years.

“So, what’s the trick?” Massicot asked Miss Kunioka.

“All right. I’ll tell you,” Kunioka said, and it was like everyone at the table leaned in to hear the secret. “You know the chocolate powder that comes in a can? The recipe is on the back. Follow that.”

When Kunioka retired in 1982, her fans at the school hired a limousine to take her down Metcalf Street to the school and then around the campus. “I never rode in a limousine in my life,” she remembered. “And wow!” Since then she’s kept in touch with many of the kids she fed and friends she made at the school.

Kunioka doesn’t drive, so one of her former students will come to get her when another nostalgic reunion comes up. She ends up being the highlight of the party, the person who represents the best of those long-ago days.

Said Regina Chun Ting, “She was strict, but we always knew she loved us.”

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