Serving up graciousness

You could say she was a waitress, but that doesn’t begin to cover it.

You could say she was a reliable employee, good colleague and devoted family member, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture, either.

The world changes around us. It becomes less recognizable and more complicated, and sometimes we need the comfort of something constant, or the touch of someone who connects us to our own history.

For countless customers at Shakers in South Pasadena, for more than four decades, Margaret Mc-


Whorter was that person.

She started working at the restaurant the year it opened in 1971. She was 28 then, and by all accounts, she performed her tough job with uncommon grace for the next 42 years.

She knew what you wanted to eat before you did.

She knew that your cousin was moving back to Pasadena and your son was graduating from college.

She knew when you needed a lift, and she knew when you couldn’t pay for your meal and needed a little help.

McWhorter, who turned 70 this year, transformed legions of customers into friends, and she kept on doing it without giving a thought to retirement, even after the pain started.

But then, one day in September, McWhorter went to the doctor instead of to work. The diagnosis was a shock to everyone who loved her. It was pancreatic cancer, stage four, and she didn’t have long to live.

“When she got out of ICU, she told me she had been in pain for over a year,” said McWhorter’s daughter, Marika.

Anyone who knew McWhorter knew she doted on her grandson, Dietrich Riley. The handsome, poised young man was a football star at St. Francis High in La Canada Flintridge and later at UCLA, where a serious neck injury ended his athletic career two years ago. McWhorter, who was in the stands for that game against Cal, had hoped to hang on long enough to see him graduate, but it didn’t happen.

She passed away Nov. 9.

“We developed a close bond throughout the years,” said Dietrich, whose grandmother drove him to school and took care of him when his mother was working.

On Mondays, they went to dinner and shopping together, two of her favorite activities. On Sundays, Dietrich went to Shakers to say hello and throw an arm around her.

“She would always have the biggest smile in the place, and she loved to introduce me to her customers,” said Dietrich. “It was great to see the effect she had on people’s lives.”

She was strong of spirit even as she lay dying, Dietrich said. He’s been studying theater, and even though his grandmother was groggy from sedation, she responded when he read to her from “Romeo and Juliet.”

If I profane with my

unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle

sin is this:

My lips, two blushing


Ready stand to smooth that

rough touch

With a tender kiss

“Every time I read my lines,” said Dietrich, “she opened her eyes and nodded.”

On Monday, Nov. 18, Shakers closed during breakfast in honor of McWhorter. Many of her co-workers and customers went to St. Therese Church in Alhambra that morning for the funeral Mass.

“She was infectious,” said former South Pasadena Mayor Ted Shaw, a customer for 26 years. “You know what? She made you feel at home. It wasn’t just what’s on the menu, it was personal things. And a lot about Dietrich.”

Shaw said McWhorter didn’t bother bringing a menu to his table because she knew what he would order every time.

Chili-size hamburger, cooked medium, no onions.

Then one day he ordered a club sandwich.

“She said, ‘Oh, my God. He’s all right, isn’t he?’ ”

Miki Jackson and Cate Uccel were longtime customers, too.

“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s go have lunch at Shakers,’ ” Jackson said. “It was, ‘Let’s go have lunch with Margaret.’ ”

Twenty-eight years ago, Mary Naredo joined the staff as a waitress.

“Margaret told me to always be sure to tell the customers everything is homemade at Shakers. She was very professional about it, and she worked extremely hard.”

Naredo said lots of customers waited to see where McWhorter was working before they decided where to sit.

“Her station was always full. They’d come in here looking for her because she touched so many hearts and blessed so many people,” Naredo said. “Some lonely people would come in here and she’d comfort them. Sometimes homeless people would come in and she’d order them a hamburger and tell the chef she’d pay for it.”

McWhorter was born in Hungary, moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 12, met a man at Pasadena City College and got married. That didn’t work out, but her life was full.

We tend to commemorate the glamorous and spectacular in Los Angeles, and we celebrate those who beat long odds. But maybe we too often overlook the people who toil in anonymity, bringing dignity and pride to their work, and going out of their way to touch lives and give meaning to our daily routines.

At McWhorter’s funeral Mass, Jackson and Uccel -- who often socialized with McWhorter, going to concerts and other events with her -- told me they had gone to see their friend in the hospital.

“She said she loved us and we told her we loved her,” said Jackson. “She

said she worried that she hadn’t done enough with her life.”

And Jackson thought, come on, Margaret.

“Don’t you know what you’ve done for everyone?”


Donations in Margaret McWhorter’s name can be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at