When Jody Benedict left Bryan to go to Austin for a heart transplant, her school nutrition family in the Bryan school district did not expect to be celebrating her life this month.
When the district’s School Nutrition Services department gathered for its end-of-the-year awards May 31, they planned to present Benedict with a T-shirt quilt to honor the 27 years she spent in the district. Now that quilt, which was publicly displayed for the first time at the awards luncheon, will be presented to her family at a memorial service at 3 p.m. Tuesday at A&M United Methodist Church in College Station.
The quilt includes T-shirts from every campus in the Bryan school district, fabric that represented her role in the department and her love of baking, and a dedication square with the date and heart pattern stitching. Each of the T-shirts are signed by the people she considered family.
“It’s sort of a gift from our heart for the love and all that she had shared with us,” Sandra Baxter, assistant director in the school nutrition department, said.
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Benedict, who moved to Bryan from Illinois, served as an assistant director overseeing equipment purchases — especially small equipment — needed for the department.
“Her whole heart was in her job,” Sundy Fryrear, director of the district’s school nutrition department, said. “I mean, that’s what she lived for and looked forward to, and, you know, that’s pretty much probably what kept her fighting for so long.”
Without kids or a spouse and with her immediate family in Illinois, Fryrear said, Benedict’s colleagues “automatically became her family.”
Benedict was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy 20 years ago and defied her doctor’s expectations for how long she would live, Baxter said.
She waited for a heart transplant and received it at the end of September. However, there was a problem with one of the valves of her new heart, Baxter said. She said Benedict was back in the hospital for the next six months before she died May 12 at the age of 53.
Throughout her time in the hospital, Baxter said people would check in on her and her family and share updates and prayer requests.
The idea to create a quilt for her came in March when they learned Benedict would not return to the district after what they hoped would be her recovery.
“We felt like this way she would be wrapped in the love of everybody here,” Baxter said. “And that way, this would be something that she could take with her if she moved back home to Illinois. The hope was that she would recover and come back here.”
Lois Robinson, cafeteria manager for Rudder High School, is sorry Benedict couldn’t receive the quilt herself, but said the quilt means a lot.
The department took a group picture around the quilt, some choosing to touch it and pray over it.
“I’m going to miss her,” Robinson said.
Many of her colleagues remembered Benedict as a calming presence and a kind person.
“She was an angel,” Robinson said. “She was a good example. Just the way she carried herself. I never saw her get mad. Of course she would get concerned about stuff, but her demeanor was always the same. … She always would say, ‘Hang in there.’ That was her favorite thing to say: ‘Hang in there.’ She always told us that. You could go to her for anything. She loved the kids. And she loved us as cafeteria managers.”
Robinson said Benedict always had a smile on her face and helped encourage others, calling her a “sweet person, sweet soul.” She described Benedict as a soldier, saying she was dedicated and had enough love for everyone.
“She just had a heart of gold. If we had more Jody’s in the world, the world would be just wonderful,” Robinson said.
Rebecca Smith, who worked in the school nutrition services administration office with Benedict, said she never met a “kinder, more gentle” person.
“I don’t care how hectic everything got, she always had time to say ‘Well, how’s it going?’ Or, ‘Is everything OK?’” Smith recalled. “She just brought a ray of sunlight into your day, regardless of how dark it might be — and there were some dark ones. She’s really going to be missed. I mean, she was a part of the school district. Now, it’s like there’s a little piece missing there.”
Baxter said Benedict set a precedent of being kind, taking care of others and making work her home.
“Treat everybody like they live in your home, like they’re part of your home, that they’re part of your family,” she said, saying that included making sure people did their best not just for themselves but for others in the district also.
Debbie Olexey, cafeteria manager at Mary Branch Elementary who was trained under Benedict, said beyond the adults in the district, her own children were saddened to hear the news as well. Olexey said Benedict would make time out of the day to eat lunch with her son and other children she came to know through her school nutrition family.
“I think all the kids were her kids,” Olexey said. “She was just a positive influence, just so sweet and friendly. You couldn’t be around her without feeling better.”