Vira Hershberger served EMU for 26 years, from 1970 to 1996, at its dining hall. She sits with her son, Larry, in her kitchen. (Photos from the Hershberger family)

‘A heart of service’: Celebrating the legacy of Vira Hershberger

Food service endowment honors longtime dining hall employee 

For 26 years, the sound of Vira Hershberger’s knife slicing through heads of lettuce was a familiar and comforting rhythm in the dining hall kitchen of EMU (then known as Eastern Mennonite College). From 1970 to 1996, Hershberger dedicated herself each day to arranging the salad bar and greeting everyone she met with warmth and friendliness. Today, her legacy of humble service and love continues through a memorial endowment in her honor.

Former dining hall manager Marilyn Schlabach ’65, who worked alongside Hershberger for 15 years, recalls the indelible impact she had on everyone around her. “I don’t think I ever heard her complain,” Schlabach said. “She had a heart of service.” Schlabach, who was Hershberger’s supervisor from 1986 to 1994, remembers her as a model employee: self-motivated, warm and endlessly dedicated.

“I had the hardest time during my annual evaluations coming up with anything for her to improve on,” Schlabach said.

Vira Hershberger pictured far left in the second row. (Photo from the 1983 Shenandoah yearbook)
Vira Hershberger in her retirement years.

Hershberger arrived at work each morning, before she was scheduled, to get organized and prepared for the day. If she felt like she wasn’t finished at the end of her shift, she would clock out and keep working until she was satisfied. 

Her daughter, Joann Henderson MA ’07 (counseling), recalls her mother’s joy in her work. “She had a great deal of pride in her salad bar,” she said. “It was immaculate and always fresh.” 

Her son, Larry Hershberger, also noted the love she had for her job in dining services. “I don’t think she ever missed a day of work in those 26 years,” he said. 

Vira Hershberger’s dedication to service extended beyond her job at EMU. Even after retiring at 74, she continued to volunteer at Gift and Thrift and attend Park View Mennonite Church as an active member. Her children remember her constant activity and desire for productivity.

“She often told us she wished she could still be working,” Henderson said. “She loved working, and she loved working at EMU.”

“I don’t know how many times she said to me during those years, ‘Oh, Larry, I don’t know why I retired when I did,'” her son recalled.

In November 2022, she passed away at the age of 100, but her legacy lives on through the Vira Miller Hershberger Memorial Endowment to Support Food Service. Established by Larry Hershberger on behalf of the family, the endowment honors her lifelong service by providing annual support for EMU dining services. It will help to fund the maintenance of dining facilities, replacement of kitchen equipment, staffing support and other essential needs.

“I love that we get to honor her and her work, as well as the work of all those people behind the scenes who often don’t get recognition,” Henderson said. 

“We believe it’s something mom would’ve wanted us to do,” Larry Hershberger added.

Kirk Shisler ’81, vice president for Advancement at EMU, highlighted the significance of the Hershberger family’s gift. “What’s special about this is that it illuminates the life and legacy of their beloved mother,” he said. “And, because it’s an endowment, it will have a sustained impact in supporting EMU food services, especially kitchen operations, for many years to come.”

Longtime dining services employee Vira Hershberger, center, sits with her children, from left, Larry, Donna, Joann and Keith.

A PhD in humility, love and service

She was born Vira Gladys Miller in Wellman, Iowa, in 1922 in a family of five brothers and two sisters. Growing up during the Great Depression, she left home at 17 to work as a housekeeper for the superintendent of Lancaster City Schools in Pennsylvania, supporting her family with her earnings. Despite having an eighth grade education, her intelligence and strong work ethic helped her excel at various roles, including as a clerk in the general store in Frytown, Iowa, where she met her husband Reaford Hershberger.

“She was always about serving others,” Henderson said. “If my mom had a PhD, it would be in humility, love and service.”

In 1969, Myron Augsburger, president of EMU at the time and a friend of the Hershbergers, offered Reaford Hershberger a job heading the buildings and grounds on campus. He accepted the offer, and the family moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia. Vira Hershberger was soon hired as a salad cook in the dining hall, where she worked until her retirement. 

At Vira Hershberger’s retirement ceremony in 1996, Schlabach reflected on the countless heads of lettuce she must have chopped over her 26 years of service — an estimated tens of thousands. But beyond the numbers, she is remembered for her unwavering humility, her deep faith and her genuine love for others.

“She was always smiling,” Larry Hershberger said. “Her disposition was always effervescent and happy. Even when she was not doing so well, she always had a positive outlook and never complained.”

Vira Hershberger found joy in life’s simple pleasures, from the beauty of nature to a cold glass of water on a hot day. “She taught us that the little things in life always have meaning,” Henderson said. “She was a quiet, humble woman of deep faith who exhibited love and service and, to me, is the epitome of Christ’s love.”

Learn more about endowments and grants at EMU here.

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