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Mary Emma Knox: The Stuff of Which Legends Are Made

August 14, 2006

Category: Alumni


by Dacia Cress, Catawba College News Service

Mary Emma KnoxA pinch of humor, a measure of firm honesty and a healthy dollop of integrity—those are the essential ingredients that yielded a lifetime of success for Mary Emma Knox at Catawba College.

Knox, a 1940 graduate, returned to her alma mater in 1942 after two years as a teacher in the public schools of Whitakers, N.C. She then dedicated her impressive career of 42 years to the betterment of the College and its many constituents.

"There was something about [Catawba] that made me want to come back," explains Knox with a smile. While a student, Knox worked as assistant dietician, thus setting the stage for her future as an employee of the College. "They called me to come back; they needed a dietician. I knew the ropes."

Mary Emma KnoxInitially working as the campus dietician, Knox quickly assumed the role of director of dining services, and 26 years later became director of campus residencies for the remainder of her years with Catawba. She also served as a member of the home economics faculty.

For those who knew her well, Knox's no pell-mell approach to all tasks, whether menial or imperative, was truly something to behold and respect.

"She was absolutely indispensable," says David Setzer, who worked at Catawba in various capacities, including special assistant to the president. "Mary Emma ran a tough ship.

"Most remember her for being the dietician," he comments, emphasizing that as director of residencies, Knox oversaw tasks that demanded attention campus-wide, duties like dusting furniture, emptying garbage cans, making any type of repairs, and seeing faculty and students comfortably settled into new offices and dorm rooms.

"Her people worked under her for years. She was such a good manager. Most of her cooks were with her for 20 years or more," Setzer recalls. "She cared for all her workers on a personal level.

"She was a great cook, but more than that, she assembled around her more great cooks," he says. "The cooking was good Southern cooking, the stick-to-your-ribs stuff," he says. "I ate every bite of it. Her food was terrific." His personal favorite was the vegetable soup, which was made when "they just threw everything into a big steam kettle, just whatever was leftover. It was unbelievably good."

Mary Emma KnoxOne of Knox's most requested and beloved recipe was the dinner rolls made for Sunday lunches, specialEvents, or holidays. Louise Tucker, Catawba's Associate Registrar for a great many years and one of Knox's closest friends then as now, can vividly remember the hot rolls and cinnamon buns.

"Her recipes in the dining room were for quantity cooking," says Tucker, who recalls well the long strips of dough laid out before the cinnamon buns would take shape to ultimately melt in the mouths of the dining room patrons. "I just ate everything. In the summers, she would make Baked Alaska."

Modest to a fault, Knox is quick to give credit to those who worked alongside her to achieve not only well-received meals, but the smooth operations of a demanding college campus.  She gives a nod of remembrance to student workers; the superintendent of buildings and grounds at one time, the late Forest Pridgen; an outstanding cook by wide reputation named B.R. Aldrich; and even a local businessman, Rufus Cohen, who often traded groundskeeping services for Knox's savory home-cooked meals.

Setzer says, "To say she was a hard worker was an understatement."

For example, in 1942 during World War II, an Army Air Force unit was sent to Catawba for classroom training and lived on campus. All Army food supplies had to be strictly recorded and kept separate from student food supplies; that meant that Knox and her crew had to make six completely separate meals each day, requiring early-morning starts and all available hands, including Knox.

Mary Emma KnoxIn addition to her unfaltering work ethic, Knox was also fondly remembered for her love of flowers, roses in particular, and her innate talent for creating appealing floral arrangements. She planted and tended a moderate-sized rose garden that was located approximately where the loading dock now exists behind the Cannon Student Center.

"I'd go out in the countryside and get roses to plant [on campus]," recalls Knox. That affection for flowers, as well as her knack for scrumptious home-cooking, was inherited from her mother, Mary, who had a large garden with vegetables, sage, and other herbs. "She'd be one to make an impression," Knox recalls.

Over time, Knox's rose garden was transplanted from the back of campus to its current location on the green in front of Omwake-Dearborn Chapel. In 1981, Catawba Trustees honored Knox with the dedication of that rose garden in her name.

"She always did the most beautiful flower arrangements," says Tucker, using clippings from her rose garden, as well as from other flowering plants on and off campus. Tucker still displays in her house two silk-flower arrangements that Knox created for her years ago.

Mary Emma Knox"She was such a confident person, first-class," Setzer says with much admiration. "She said what she meant and meant what she said. You respected her for that."

Throughout her career, Catawba recognized Knox with a number of prestigious awards for her dedicated service to the College. She was honored in 1997 with an Exemplary Life Service Award at the Service of Praise and Thanksgiving, was given the O.B. Michael Outstanding Alumnus Award in 1983, and was awarded the Trustee Award for outstanding contribution to the College in 1978.

Today, Knox resides at the Salisbury Center of Genesis Eldercare, where her sister, Lois, also lives. Both Setzer and Tucker have continued their enduring friendship with Knox and remain in contact.  Alumni, friends and former colleagues may contact Knox by mail at:

Genesis ElderCare – Salisbury
Mary Emma Knox
710 Julian Road
Salisbury, North Carolina 28144

Knox and her family have graciously shared the recipes for her two most-loved baked goods. 

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Potato Rolls
(or Refrigerator Rolls)

SERVES 6-8:
1 c. Mashed potatoes
1 c. milk
Flour (enough to make dough stiff)
2/3 c. shortening
1/2 c. sugar
2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 pkg. yeast
1/2 c. warm water

Soften/dissolve yeast in warm water.  Set aside.  Combine potatoes, shortening, sugar, salt, and milk.  Add eggs and yeast.  Add flour, a little at a time to make dough stiff.  Knead 10 minutes.  Roll into ball and place in greased bowl.  Cover with a damp cloth and place in the refrigerator. Punch down occasionally as it rises. Roll dough ¼ thick.   Using biscuit cutter, cut out rolls and brush with butter.  Fold and place on greased cookie sheet.  Let rise until double (1-1.5 hours).  Bake at 375-400 F. for 12-15 minutes or until brown.

SERVES 25:
2 c. mashed potatoes
2 c. milk
4-5 c. flour
1 c. shortening
1 c. sugar
2 tbsp. salt
4 eggs
2 cakes of yeast
1 c. warm water

Soften/dissolve yeast in warm water.  Set aside.  Combine potatoes, shortening, sugar, salt, and milk.  Add eggs and yeast.  Add flour, a little at a time to make dough stiff.  Knead 10 minutes.  Roll into ball and place in greased bowl.  Cover with a damp cloth and place in the refrigerator. Punch down occasionally as it rises. Roll dough ¼ thick.   Using biscuit cutter, cut out rolls and brush with butter.  Fold and place on greased cookie sheet.  Let rise until double (1-1.5 hours).  Bake at 375-400 F. for 12-15 minutes or until brown.

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;Cinnamon Buns

Use one (16 ounce) box of roll mix (Pillsbury, General Mills, or other)
Add 2 t. sugar

Filling:
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins

Mix filling ingredients together. Roll dough about ½ inch thick. Spread with ½ cup melted butter. Add filling over the dough. Beginning with the wide side, roll carefully: pinch edges to seal. Let rise until doubled or light to touch. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Icing:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. milk
1/8 tsp. vanilla

Mix ingredients in small bowl. Spread over buns. Let cool, then separate.