By Casey Peacock: PNT staff writer
Quiet and unassuming, Eastern New Mexico University head baker Julio Rodriguez spends his work days rolling out pastries and breads to feed hungry students, faculty and staff.
Starting in 1966, Rodriguez began working in the dish room, then later moved to the kitchen, washing pots and pans. His hands were in dishwater but his mind at the time was on something more creative.
During his spare time, he would go over and watch another employee, Eva Mathis, who made the cakes. On his own initiative Rodriguez began to learn the baking process, he says.
“She taught me just about everything I know,” said Rodriguez of Mathis.
After his boss at the time, Ralph Vines, saw that he was spending a lot of time learning to bake, he was moved to that section of the kitchen permanently.
“I’m real thankful for that,” said Rodriguez.
A sixth-grade education has not stopped Rodriguez from obtaining and perfecting a skill that has supported his family through a good part of his life.
The father of five girls, who have all worked with him at one time or another, Rodriguez says he has worked hard to provide a better life for them than that of his childhood and early life as a migrant farm worker.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said Rodriguez of his career.
Long and early hours are a part of the job that Rodriguez feels so passionate about.
During the holiday season, the pace can be frantic, he says.
Many celebrations, such as this week’s graduation are hosted on campus, and Rodriguez does the baking for them. He also does the daily baking for the dining hall and the Ground Zero cafe.
The only consistency to the job is making the same pastries daily for the Ground Zero Cafe, said Rodriguez.
For the dining hall, Rodriguez plans the dessert menu daily. With help from his assistant, the items are prepared for all of the meals, said Rodriguez.
“Sometimes we don’t plan, we just come in and start making stuff,” said Rodriguez.
Though he doesn’t have a specialty, Rodriguez enjoys decorating the many cakes that he bakes and designs. This creative outlet brings him back to the beginning of his career and his start in the profession, said Rodriguez.
“The more you do it, the more you create, and the more designs you can make,” said Rodriguez.
Another aspect of the job that Rodriguez enjoys is the fancier desserts that are made for special events. This allows for more creativity and skill, said Rodriguez.
Some of the items that Rodriguez has crafted include swans, made with sweet pastry and a cornucopia that was made from bread dough, he said. Some of the fancier items are for decorative purposes only, while others are edible, said Rodriguez.
“I like to do fancy stuff,” said Rodriguez.
Since 1970, Rodriguez has been performing in a band in his spare time. Playing the guitar and bass, Rodriguez performs Spanish music (Norteno), and travels with the band throughout the area on the weekends. A former group that Rodriguez was involved in, recorded two CD’s, he said.
“If I ever retire, I will keep on with the music,” said Rodriguez.
In speaking with Rodriguez’s boss, Tony Allen, General Manager of Sodexho, he was quick to praise Rodriguez for his work.
“The impact comes when his product rolls out, it’s like … Wow!,” said Allen.
Surprised by the depth of Rodriguez’ knowledge, Allen stated that in other areas of the country, Rodriguez would be considered a pastry chef. No matter what is asked of him, said Allen, Rodriguez is able to produce the product.
“The challenge with Julio, is to have enough parties of magnitude to challenge him,” said Allen.
Always quiet, Rodriguez is praised by his co-workers for his work ethic and heart.
“He’s a wonderful person to work with,” said Maeva Heacox, administrative assistant for Sodexho. “He provides emotional support and makes me smile.”
Plans to retire are far from Rodriguez’ mind. He plans to continue to work until the time comes when he can’t, or until the university throws him out, he said.
“I’ll just keep on going until God says, OK, it’s time to stop,” said Rodriguez.