About 35 years ago, Dr. Ed Cahill said, Clare Sawyer walked into his office at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he was the head of the sociology department.
Sawyer wasn't a typical college student. She was a registered nurse with a husband and five children, and she was looking for something different to do with her life.
"It's difficult," Cahill told her, as he told all other prospective sociology majors. "You'll have to prove yourself."
She joined the department, and once she proved herself, he helped set her up with an internship at the Chattanooga Housing Authority, editing a newsletter.
Last Friday, Sawyer, 73, retired as executive director of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, a post she held for 15 years.
"It's just time," she said. "You just kind of know when it's time."
During Sawyer's tenure at the Food Bank, distribution has tripled, growing from 4 million pounds in 1997 to nearly 12 million last year.
She helped establish programs such as Second Helpings, which uses leftover food from restaurants, and the Evelyn Navarre Davenport Teaching Garden, which demonstrates the vitality of planting vegetables.
Sawyer has overseen the transfer of the organization to a new, larger location off of Amnicola Highway, and a near doubling in staff.
At her retirement party, held in the Food Bank warehouse among pallets of peanut butter, pasta and beans, Sawyer wore an orchid corsage pinned to her sweater and got choked up as she tried to thank her family, friends and colleagues.
Plenty of them were on hand to thank her as well.
"She not only gave me good daily advice, she gave me good life advice," said Mary Fleming, who worked as the warehouse operations manager at the Food Bank for 16 years.
Board member Maria Matthews presented a poetic tribute, describing Sawyer's achievements in rhyming couplets.
"Sometimes in life, you come across a real treasure / Someone who gives of herself beyond all measure ..." she began.
In her 15 years as director of the Food Bank, Sawyer said, she learned about problem solving, setting goals and dealing with all kinds of people.
She said she'll miss "everything -- the challenge, the excitement. The Food Bank is a dynamic organization. It'll be hard to find something like that.
"And," she said fondly, "the people you work with."
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...