Any student who eats in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Selleck dining hall has chatted with Cheryl Bishop.
Wearing either her red or navy blue polo with “Cheryl” embroidered on the chest in cursive, Bishop scans students into the dining hall Monday through Friday each afternoon. She doesn’t shy away from conversation, often engaging students in a story or simply joking around with them. She is a cornerstone for the Selleck dining experience, interacting with hundreds of students each and every week, a perpetual part in their day.
But you don’t know Cheryl.
Born in Kemmerer, Wyoming, Bishop’s journey to Selleck’s dining hall and into the lives of thousands of UNL students spans over 50 years, nine states and a wide variety of jobs.
She’s never been a stranger to hard work. Her father ran a family hardware store where she spent many hours working while growing up. In addition to the time she spent there, she was involved in her school’s band and chorus, all the while taking enough credits to graduate high school a year early.
During the summers, Bishop worked as a hotel maid out in Yellowstone to earn some extra cash.
“Back then, the Beatles were coming through strong, and we had a group of younger people from England, traveling across the United States, often working in national parks in the summers,” Bishop said. “It allowed me to meet a lot of interesting people each year.”
After high school, Bishop found out her parents had enrolled her in a Salt Lake City business college, despite her wishes, to become a veterinarian. But, Bishop quit the nine-month stenographer course part of the way through and found herself at a loss for what to do next. Her opportunities were limited, but after talking to a navy recruiter at the behest of her grandmother, Bishop made the decision to enlist in the medical corps.
Entering boot camp on new year’s eve of 1965, Bishop found herself in the incredibly outdated barracks amongst the icy winters of Baynebridge, Maryland. The military life saw Bishop taking a variety of classes on different subjects and engaging in the rigorous practices for marching, salutes and inspections.
“By the time you got out of bed, you had 10 minutes to perfectly fold your bedding, get dressed in uniform and make sure everything looked right,” Bishop said. “However you had your made up hair was how you had to wear it the next day. There was a lady that would shut the lights out each night and if she saw your hair was still wet, she would tell you that your hair needed to look exactly the same in the morning.”
Bishop graduated from camp in March and was allowed 30 days of rest and relaxation before being relocated to Great Lakes, Illinois.
“Out there you had mixed classes and that’s where a guy taught me how to play pool,” Bishop said. “It was great fun trying to keep up with the guys and their long legs during marches. I remember my friend Barbara would pull her skirt up just to stretch her legs and keep up with everybody.”
Her next base was in Charleston, North Carolina, where she would meet her future husband, Lesley. The two got to know each other during a period of time where the pair and two other friends traveled to Myrtle Beach.
“He asked me if I would marry him,” Bishop said with a laugh. “I said that if he meant immediately, forget it. But, if he meant after we had more time to get to know one another, then yes.”
The two would eventually get married in December of 1965, and Bishop was honorably discharged from the Navy when she became pregnant and eventually gave birth in Georgia in December of 1966. After her husband’s time was up, the family moved to New Mexico where his family resided. Bishop was placed in a position with Blue Cross Blue Shield coding and paying claims. She also worked for State Farm in Dallas for a short amount of time. After a spell there, her family and her finally settled down in Denver, where she worked at a railroad hospital as a commercial insurance broker.
“I grew up in the foothills of the Rockies and our family went camping every year,” Bishop said. “The mountains and the forest in Denver were what I loved most of all.”
But, Bishop’s pregnancy with her second child would change both the course of her life and her view on family.
Because of a doctor’s mistake during the birth, Bishop’s life was put into mortal danger, and she was becoming increasingly anemic. The traumatic experience saw Bishop’s photographic memory start to slip, and her health remained spotty. She was out of work for a period of time until recovering enough to become a home loan processor at Majestic Saving and Loan in 1974.
However, as her second son became dangerously sick and was hospitalized, Bishop couldn’t bear the hours spent away from her child.
“It was killing me, not being able to see my son,” Bishop said. “When Les would get through with the railroad, he could stop by the hospital and see him, but I wasn’t able to do that because of work.”
Unable to withstand the pain of not seeing her second child, Bishop raced to visit him on one her lunch breaks.
“I was five minutes late. My boss told me that if I was late one more time, I was out,” Bishop said.
Having to work a certain amount of hours each week, Bishop was trying to keep up during January and March, but it still wasn’t enough for her job.
“On April Fool’s Day they posted a memo that said we now had to work 10 hours of overtime each week,” Bishop said. “It was not an April Fool’s joke.”
Bishop was told if she had a problem with the new policy, she could raise her issue with management.
“I already knew what I had to do,” Bishop said. “The policy was death, and that was it. My family was worth more than some job, no matter how well it paid. I never went back on that. I knew the lack of money would put a strain on my family, but, hurt or not, we were gonna make it.”
Seeking work that allowed her more free time, Bishop became a licensed babysitter and was able to stay closer to her family. As the years passed, Bishop’s family grew as she had two more children. But, even with her babysitting job, the family was stretched to make ends meet.
Eventually, the family was forced to move out of Denver, but found a place to stay in Ulysses, Nebraska, a tiny town of only 300 people.
Working a variety of jobs, Bishop found the increasing use of computers in the workplace to be a hurdle she struggled with.
“I didn’t know where to even begin,” Bishop said. “Luckily, vocational rehabilitation started helping me to adapt. They sent me out to Milford to take a computer course, back when DOS was still in. It was incredibly frightening. Back then, if you touched one thing wrong, you lost everything.”
This battle against the constant and growing wave of technology left a distraught Bishop feeling very much alone.
Eventually, she underwent a training course to become a nurse’s assistant, driving 30 minutes each day in all kinds of weather. It wasn’t a career that Bishop particularly wanted to do after her time in the Navy, but she was left with little choice.
During her 11 years of work, Bishop fed, dressed, cleaned and helped maintain the highest possible quality of life for the often dying patients she cared for. Many of the residents could barely move on their own and required assistance just to get to the cafeteria and to eat.
“I was very conscientious about people’s safety,” Bishop said. “I wasn’t gonna let anybody hit the floor, no matter how much bigger the patient was than me.”
But Bishop found the work incredibly taxing not only physically, but emotionally and mentally as well. She said that it often felt like patients were guinea pigs for different treatments. The strain became noticeable worse after she was moved to work in the Alzheimer’s unit.
“I have a scar that I got from a lady I was trying to help in the unit,” Bishop said. “People that had known her before had told me that she was the sweetest lady you’d ever ran into. And yet Alzheimer’s had completely erased her.”
After a full year of reporting pain, Bishop finally experienced a ruptured disk in her back, which ended her stay in the nursing home.
After her medical leave was up, she was fought hard in receiving unemployment aid. But, Bishop eventually won the case and went through vocational training once again.
It was after this length of time that Bishop would find her home here at UNL, working as a cashier.
“After coming from the nursing home, my job here put me back in the middle of life,” Bishop said. “I really enjoy being in the center of so many young and exciting people.”
It’s not uncommon for students to grow close to Bishop, often chatting each day for years at a time, eventually forming lasting friendships.
“I used to cry when I found out a particular student was graduating,” Bishop said. “I still get teary-eyed, but I realized that this is what they came here for, so they could move forward in life.”
Bishop loves watching the students in Lincoln grow and mature through the years, finding out who they truly are.
Working in Selleck, which is home to the majority of the international students at UNL, Cheryl is no stranger to talking to people from all walks of life. She doesn’t make her own perceptions based on their backgrounds, but rather tries to learn each person’s story.
“If I can, I like to draw kids out of their shells,” Bishop said. “But it takes weeks and months sometimes. There was one kid that would come in and avoid eye contact everyday in the beginning. I watched and watched to learn his name so I could address him properly. It’s all about trying to make each student comfortable, and I always want to make an effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Iraq, Iran, Brazil or wherever. It’s about who they are, what they stand for.”