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Times Past: Mother Hanley

In this 1951 photo, Margaret Murphy Hanley, known as ‘Mother’ Hanley, pauses from her duties as manager of the college dining hall to be photographed in front of ‘Old Main’ on the Arizona State College campus (now Northern Arizona University).

In this 1951 photo, Margaret Murphy Hanley, known as ‘Mother’ Hanley, pauses from her duties as manager of the college dining hall to be photographed in front of ‘Old Main’ on the Arizona State College campus (now Northern Arizona University).

Margaret Murphy Hanley arrived in Flagstaff in the early 1900s with one goal in mind: To be able to offer her children, ages six to 16 at the time, higher education as a benefit of her employment with the Arizona State College. Through her four decades of work at the school, she would leave a legacy still visible today, but she wasn’t a teacher.

After arriving at what is now known as Northern Arizona University in August 1912 to become the college’s first director of food services, the woman who would come to be known as ‘Mother’ Hanley moved her children moved into an attic apartment above the school’s small dining hall.

In her early years with the college, she cooked, sometimes by lamp light in the early mornings, presiding over 12 tables for three meals a day. At that time, milk was supplied by a single cow. In Hanley’s dining hall, boys washed the dishes while the girls dried and put them away.

Hanley’s serene dining room featured cloth-covered tables, silverware, cloth napkins and place settings. Seats were assigned by a table number drawing at the door, changing every four weeks so that no cliques could be formed. Hanley wanted to be sure that no one got too comfortable, reminding the students that manners always mattered.

A student from Miami, Ariz., recalled that Hanley demanded that men wear ties and jackets to her dining hall. “Flagstaff was a teacher’s college. They were receiving training in manners that they in turn had to pass on to children. When she had to act the tyrant, it was to knock the rough edges off the big lumbering country boys who came to her dining hall both as customers and as workers.”

As time went on, many students passed through Hanley’s kitchen and dining hall, including former Arizona Gov. Raul Castro. The men working in the dining hall – known as “hashers” – wore white aprons and jackets and served the meals from large trays. Many aspired to become the “head hasher,” a position commanding respect and responsibility. The group even had their own Hashers Ball, one of the social events of the school year.

Hanley stayed on the job even after her children had graduated and moved on, purchasing a house across the street that became a boarding home for single faculty women and students who stayed for the summer.

In her late 70s, Hanley still presided over breakfast, lunch and dinner in the student union dining room, built in 1936, along with two other units. Students served, cooked, washed and dried dishes each day under the caring supervision of Hanley. A cafeteria was added to the basement for summer school, and the formal dining room now had 54 tables.

Hanley’s granddaughter wrote for Northern Arizona University’s centennial celebration memoir in 1999 about how the students that lived on campus of the Normal School and worked in the dining hall felt about Hanley. “Some have stated they would have left school to go back home had it not been for Mother Hanley’s support and advice.”

And the students weren’t shy about expressing their admiration for Hanley.

The students dedicated a homecoming day to Hanley twice, once for her 25 years of service and then for 35 years. On Mother’s Day in 1936, the students voted to close the dining hall for the evening meal to give her a break. In 1947, she was given a free plane ride from Flagstaff to Phoenix and Yuma to visit family for the holidays.

After her retirement at 79 years old, she moved to Phoenix to live with her daughter. Hanley passed away in 1955, after a fall which broke her hip.

The dining hall where Hanley spent 41 years was eventually repurposed as a dormitory and named Hanley Hall in her honor for a short time, before it was razed and the space incorporated into the science lab on the north end of campus. A plaque recalling the history and life work of Hanley stands in front of the west door of the building.

At homecoming each year, older alumni still pay homage to the gentle woman who gave them inspiration, courage, a work ethic and a sense of belonging in the “homiest part of the school.”

– Joan Brundige-Baker. Photo credit NAU.ARC.1953-3-16; courtesy of Northern Arizona University .

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