Sage restaurant supervisor and occasional helper at VG Cafe, Karen May died last Sunday night after being taken off life support following a heart attack, Sage and VG Cafe manager Margi Braden said. According to May’s daughter, Maren Carlson, she was 57 years old when she died.
Like every other Sage worker, Sage waitress and mathematics senior Holli Fotch received a text message the following Monday from the VG Cafe supervisor that said to come in and talk with her. After realizing they all got the same text, the Sage workers began to panic.
“Someone did bring up, ‘Oh, do you think Karen’s OK,'” Fotch said. “We all kind of had an idea but didn’t want to think it, of course.”
Fotch went to talk with the supervisor as soon as she could. When she arrived, she was told the news — May had died.
That was the moment Fotch started to cry.
“We all basically just started crying, every one of us,” Fotch said. “I mean, some people react different, like in shock because she was completely healthy, so it was very shocking.”
Because Fotch was one of the older Sage waitresses, she was still in contact with employees who had graduated and knew May. Fotch called to tell them the news.
During the dinner shift that night, staff designated a room at the back of the restaurant as the mourning room for employees.
In that room sat something most people wouldn’t notice. It was the one thing that connected the employees back to May — candy.
“She would bring a bag of candy in and leave it for everyone to eat everyday,” Sage waitress and business and administration senior Noel Myers said.
May — a Central Valley native — was known for more than her daily candy delivery. She brought in baked goods for nearly every occasion, too.
“She made us these lemon cakes that were just to die for,” Myers said. “I’ll never have another lemon cake like that again.”
According to Myers, May always brought in treats for an employee if it was their birthday. She would give them baked goods and personalized gifts.
May gave Braden the same thing every year for her birthday — a bottle of wine.
“She always got me a bottle of wine, and when I drank it, I always thought of her,” Braden said. “I’d always tell her the next day how good it was and she was always happy because she never drank so she didn’t know she was buying the right stuff.”
May’s maternal gestures and knack for baking helped earn her a nickname among the Sage workers — Momma Karen. Like a caring mother, she would take home the employees’ work shirts and aprons, iron and wash them, then bring them back fresh for them to wear, Braden said.
For Myers, May embodied the phrase “momma knows best.”
“She was, uh,” Myers said as she looked away and struggled to hold back tears. “She was the person that you’d go to when you’re having a bad day. Like, you don’t even have to say anything, she knows. She knows exactly what to say to fix it.”
May’s kindness and willingness to help was not constrained to the Sage family — she was the same with others she met and won their hearts that way.
According to Braden, May was extremely dedicated to her work, a workaholic almost.
“If I needed her to work late over at VG’s, she would. If she needed to come in early for dinner she would come in, every banquet she set up perfectly,” she said. “Never called in sick one day. Never.”
When May wasn’t working at Sage, she was cleaning houses or taking on other jobs, Myers said.
“(May) used to always tell me, she would get mad at me and tell me I needed to slow down because I reminded her way too much of herself,” Myers laughed. “And I think that’s something we always had, a bond between us. We were very similar in that aspect. We worked too much.”
Remembering ‘Momma Karen’
There are comical memories of May some of the Sage staff hold close to their heart. For example, according to Myers, how much coffee she drank during shifts and the way she’d joke around with the workers. There are the more serious ones as well, ones that sound like they came straight out of “The Breakfast Club.”
“She did something beautiful,” Myers said. “She took a group of kids here that, out there, wouldn’t make sense together. Every employee here is different; we’re all so, so different, and she created a family. We may not be coping well, but we’re coping together.”
There will be a memorial service for Karen May at Mountainbrook Community Church on Jan. 11 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Mountainbrook Community Church is located at 1775 Calle Joaquin, San Luis Obispo.
There will be a celebration of life ceremony at Sage restaurant afterward, from 3 to 5 p.m. There will be an open mic to share stories about May.
Donations to build a memorial bench in honor of May can be sent to the following address:
Cal Poly Foundation
1 Grand Avenue, San Luis Obispo CA 92407-0707
Correction: A previous version of this post implied employees voluntarily came to work after being told May had died. After talking with another Sage employee, it is unclear if the employees were expected to work Monday night and if they came in voluntarily.
The employee said they were required to work. Braden declined to comment. Cal Poly Corporation Human Resources also declined to comment.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated May was 58 when she died. It has been revised to say she was 57.