The petite woman with the soft brown bob and infectious smile taking coffee orders each day in the Muenster University Center is Jean Severson, who takes pride in remembering customer’s names — and sometimes even their repeat orders.
“Sometimes I get to be really good friends with some customers,” she said. “I love it when I start remembering people’s names and they come and they talk to me. It makes me really happy. It’s one of my little hobbies.”
Severson has worked at the University Brew and C-Store — where she describes her position as “C-Store lady” — for about four years, but her presence at USD dates back much further — 39 years, to be exact.
She first came to Vermillion from her hometown of Huron, S.D., in 1971, as a young wife and stay-at-home mother. Soon enough, she enrolled as a student at USD.
“I was waiting for my son to be old enough to start school,” Severson said. “So when he turned six, which was in 1976, he started first grade and I started college. I was 24, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Severson earned her undergraduate degree in 1981 with a major in philosophy and minors in anthropology, French and political science. She then found work at the old USD Book and Supply bookstore that was replaced by Barnes & Noble in 2002.
“My last day of class, I walked into the bookstore and asked if they were hiring,” Severson said. “And they said yes, and I worked there for 22 years. I absolutely loved it.”
Severson served as head cashier, training and overseeing student cashiers. When Barnes & Noble took over, she took her talents “down the hall” to Aramark: Food, Facility, and Uniform Services.
She began working in a small coffee shop in the old student center. Gradually, with the construction of a new student center, Severson made her way to the other side of campus, working first at North Complex dining services and then in the newly completed MUC.
In her current position at the MUC, Severson takes care of everything that needs to be done, except making coffee. Her main responsibility is stocking products, and she tries to help in the coffee shop as much as she can. She cites her co-workers as the most rewarding part of her job.
“I love working with students. That’s why I’m still here,” Severson said. “It’s really hard when they go, but I know more are coming, and I’ve had so many of them that I’m still in touch with. The very first people who were here when I started working I still am on Facebook with, and (I) go to their weddings, and (I) get pictures with their babies.”
USD senior and U-Brew barista Garret Olson, who has been working with Severson for more than three years, said her enthusiasm for students and customers is consistently apparent.
“It’s fun watching her interact with all the students and taking a legitimate interest in what they’re doing day to day,” Olson said. “She’ll remember if a student had a test that day or if someone went home that weekend. She remembers all that stuff about so many people.”
Olson said Severson has an uncanny knack for remembering students’ names.
“She usually greets people by name before I even get a chance to ask them what it is to write it on their cup,” he said.
One such student is senior Karli Siemonsma.
“She keeps me coming back because’s she’s so personable and so friendly,” Siemonsma said. “She makes coming here fun because she knows you. She remembers my name by now, and she always remembers that I don’t want my receipt back.”
When she’s not working at the C-Store, Severson said she enjoys spending time with family members and indulging in what she calls her “cheap hobbies” of reading and walking. She doesn’t plan to leave Vermillion, even upon retirement, because it suits her lifestyle.
“(Retirement) sounds better every year, especially when you have a job where you’re on your feet all day long,” she said. “But I’m still having too much fun working. It’s so much fun to come to work every day.”
(Photo: Jean Severson takes an order from a customer at the C-Store in the Muenster University Center. Severson has been actively present at the University of South Dakota since 1976. She earned her undergraduate degree in 1981 and then worked at the old USD Book and Supply store until it was replaced by Barnes & Noble in 2002. Mikkelle Carlson / The Volante)