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Waitress serves smiles with style

(ran West, East, South editions)

Lois Parchim remembers her training as a waitress when she was 16 years old and a junior in high school.

"We had to line everything up," she says. "Glasses here, plates here, cups here. Serve from the left, remove from the right."

"He was very strict," she said, referring to the maitre d' at the restaurant in Hartland, Wis., where she has just attended her 55-year high school reunion.

"I made 25 cents an hour and maybe $12 to $14 in tips on a shift."

Now 73, she still is waiting tables. Granted, it's just part-time, 12 to 14 hours a weekand only for breakfast at the Princess Martha Retirement Center. But she still loves her work. And her customers return her warmth.

"Goodbye. You take care of yourselves," she cheerily says to two men who are her last customers of the day. Breakfast at the Princess Martha begins at 7:30 a.m. with several guests waiting to be served. Now she will wash her dishes.

About 15 residents eat breakfast in the handsome, mauve and teal second-floor dining room.

"She's excellent," Phyllis Waters, manager of the center, said of the friendly waitress. "I wish I could clone her. She pampers the residents to the point of spoiling them. They just love her."

Trim and tiny, Mrs. Parchim has short hair that is pure white and curly, and her bright blue eyes get even brighter when she recalls coming to the Princess Martha. She and her husband, who died in March, had moved to Sarasota, then to St. Petersburg. It was 1977.

"I'd been working at a nursing home, and I walked by here," she said. "There was an ad in the window, "Waitress wanted.' I came in and applied, and the woman said she would call me in two days. I turned around to leave, and she said "Wait a minute. Why don't you start tomorrow?'

"The Baptist church was operating the place back then, and we used to have a buffet on Sunday. The dining room was downstairs then. The folks from Christ United Methodist Church used to come over, and there would be a line out the door. Miss Helen Price used to play the organ in the lobby. We had serving plates and cloth napkins; it was just so elegant."

Many local business people ate in the dining room.

"I remember a table of eight lawyers always sat in the corner," she said. "I remember Mr. (Bud) Coit and Mr. (Charlie) Burke were among them."

When the Princess Martha closed for a while and changed ownership, she occasionally joined the lawyers for a cup of coffee at the Soreno, where they'd moved their breakfasts.

She learned the tricks of the trade early, and never had any trouble, except in a few restaurants with bars, long before she came to St. Petersburg.

"Sometimes the guys would try to reach under the table for your leg," she said. "You'd just brush their arm slightly with a hot coffee pot. They never bothered you again."

"But I love working with older folks," she said. "They are so much more appreciative than younger people. It's the little things that count. Sometimes I butter their bread for them or open their jelly when they can't. Sometimes they don't see so well, so I put sugar in their coffee for them."

Mrs. Parchim has a cat for company, a nice little home, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"And in my spare time I'm an avid TV watcher," she said. "But I really look forward to coming in here. Everybody is so nice."