When Jody Benedict left Bryan to go to Austin for a heart transplant, her school nutrition family in Bryan’s school district didn’t expect to celebrate her life this month.
When the district’s School Nutrition Services department met for their year-end awards on May 31, they planned to present Benedict with a t-shirt to honor her 27 years in the district. . Now that quilt, which was first publicly displayed at the awards luncheon, will be presented to her family at a memorial service at 3 p.m. Tuesday at A&M United Methodist Church in College Station.
The quilt features t-shirts from every campus in Bryan’s school district, fabric that represented his role in the department and his love of baking, and a dedication square with the date and heart. Each of the T-shirts is signed by the people she considered family.
“It’s kind of a gift from our hearts for the love and all that she had shared with us,” said Sandra Baxter, assistant director of the school’s nutrition department.
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Benedict, who moved to Bryan from Illinois, served as assistant manager to oversee purchases of equipment, especially small equipment, needed by the department.
“His whole heart was in his work,” said Sundy Fryrear, director of the district’s school nutrition department. “I mean, that’s what she lived and looked forward to, and, you know, that’s pretty much what kept her fighting for so long.”
Without children or a spouse and with his immediate family in Illinois, Fryrear said, Benedict’s co-workers “automatically became his family.”
Benedict was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy 20 years ago and defied her doctor’s expectations for her lifespan, Baxter said.
She waited for a heart transplant and received it at the end of September. However, there was a problem with one of the valves in his new heart, Baxter said. She said Benedict was back in hospital for the next six months before dying on May 12 at the age of 53.
Throughout her hospital stay, Baxter said people will be watching her and her family and sharing updates and prayer requests.
The idea to create a quilt for her came in March when they learned that Benedict would not be returning to the district after what they hoped would be his recovery.
“We felt like she would be wrapped up in everyone’s love here,” Baxter said. “And that way it would be something she could take with her if she went back to her home in Illinois. The hope was that she would recover and come back here.
Rudder High School cafeteria manager Lois Robinson is sorry Benedict couldn’t receive the quilt herself, but said the quilt meant a lot.
The department took a group photo around the quilt, with some choosing to touch and pray over it.
“I will miss her,” Robinson said.
Many of his colleagues remembered Benoît as a calming presence and a kind person.
“He was an angel,” Robinson said. “She was a good example. Just the way she behaved. I never saw her get upset. Sure, she worried about some things, but her behavior was still the same. … She always said, ‘Hold on.’ That was what she preferred to say: “Hold on.” She always told us. You could go to her for anything. She loved children. And she loved us as cafeteria managers.
Robinson said Benedict always had a smile on her face and helped to encourage others, calling her a “sweet person, gentle soul”. She described Benedict as a soldier, saying she was dedicated and had enough love for everyone.
“She just had a heart of gold. If we had more Jody’s around the world, the world would be just wonderful,” Robinson said.
Rebecca Smith, who worked in the school nutrition services administration office with Benedict, said she had never met a “kinder, sweeter” person.
“I don’t care how hectic it all got, she always had time to go, ‘Well, how are you?’ Or, ‘Is everything okay?’ Smith recalled. “She just brought a ray of sunshine into your day, no matter how dark, and there were some dark ones. We’re really going to miss her. I mean, she was part of the school district Now it feels like a little piece is missing.
Baxter said Benedict set a precedent by being kind, caring for others and making his house work.
“Treat everyone like they live in your house, like they’re part of your house, like they’re part of your family,” she said, saying that included making sure that people were doing their best not only for themselves but for others in the neighborhood as well.
Debbie Olexey, cafeteria manager at Mary Branch Elementary which was formed under Benedict XVI, said that beyond the adults in the district, her own children were also saddened to hear the news. Olexey said Benedict will make time for lunch with her son and other children she has known through her school nutrition family.
“I think all the kids were his kids,” Olexey said. “She was just a positive influence, so sweet and friendly. You couldn’t be near her without feeling better.