‘Mother of the House’ Mourned

Longworth Cafeteria Workers Recall Longtime Head Chef Odessa Ferguson

Posted July 24, 2007 at 4:19pm

While life in the Capitol office buildings seems constantly in flux — interns return to school, staffers become lobbyists, Members lose elections — some things don’t change. For instance, for more than half a century, the staple of the Longworth House Office Building was Odessa Ferguson, the building cafeteria’s head chef until her retirement.

Ferguson, who died July 11 at age 85, is still remembered on Capitol Hill for her keen memory of names, favorite dishes

and dietary restrictions. Her famous line, “walk and talk,” which she would shout to move the crowds along, was immortalized decades ago in feature stories by The Washington Post and The New York Times, as was her ever-present button reading “Smile. Jesus loves you.”

“She’d call everybody ‘baby’ and ‘honey,’” said Doris Cherry, a current Longworth cafeteria employee who worked with Ferguson. “That’s why I started calling people that, too.”

In 1940, a newly married Ferguson, then 18, came to Washington, D.C., from Landis, N.C. She got a job at Longworth one year later, and from her perch behind the breakfast bar she watched future political denizens such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford pass through the cafeteria.

She also watched society change within the microcosm of the food court. When she arrived at Longworth in 1941, for example, she was earning only $17.50 every two weeks, and black and white employees were divided by segregated dining tables and bathrooms.

Through it all, though, her first item of business was making the cafeteria a home, for her and for everyone else. Cherry described Ferguson as “the mother of the House,” a name that took on a whole new meaning when her instantaneous memory of what people liked to eat extended to what they were actually “allowed” to eat.

“A Congressman would place his order and Miss Odessa would say, ‘your wife says you can’t have it!’ and would hand him something else instead,” recalled Fanny Gordon, who trained under Ferguson 42 years ago.

“She was always putting people on diets,” added Pat Martin, who has worked in the Longworth cafeteria for 34 years. “She helped a man lose 200 pounds by putting him on a chili diet. He wasn’t allowed to eat anything else.”

Friends say Ferguson loved her job, her customers and her co-workers. In turn, Longworth regulars fell in love with Ferguson. Martin said Ferguson was deeply committed to her church and was a very successful fundraiser by soliciting donations from Members: “Most of Congress supported her 100 percent.”

When Ferguson retired in the early 1990s, Martin added, Members gave her a money tree and a golden watch.

“Everyone is very nice to me, all of ’em call me sweetheart,” Ferguson reflected to a Washington Post reporter in 1974.

Her old friends in the cafeteria don’t wonder why.

“She was a wonderful soul,” Gordon said. “She taught me everything. If you didn’t learn from her, you wouldn’t ever learn anything.”

“I wouldn’t have gotten this far if it wasn’t for her,” Martin agreed. “She made me love my job.”

A memorial service was held for Ferguson on July 19 at the Robert G. Mason Funeral Home. She is survived by her three sons, three of her 15 siblings, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.