Jim Kenyon: Hanover waitress gets serving of money, side of love after cancer diagnosis

  • Longtime waitress Becky Schneider carries plates of food out to customers at Lou's Restaurant in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 18, 2014. Schneider has worked at the restaurant for 30 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

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    Becky Schneider and her daughter Sarah sing "Happy Birthday" to a customer at Lou's Restaurant in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 18, 2014. Sarah has worked at the restaurant with her mother for 11 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/1/2020 10:01:19 PM
Modified: 12/1/2020 10:01:12 PM

Becky Schneider didn’t have much time to talk when I called her apartment on Monday. She was on her way out the door to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for cancer treatment before picking up her two granddaughters when they got off the school bus later in the afternoon.

In October, Schneider, who is raising the girls, ages 7 and 9, was diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.

Between battling cancer and caring for her granddaughters, the 59-year-old Lebanon resident has a full plate.

But Schneider is accustomed to juggling plates. She’s been waitressing for 40-plus years at Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery in downtown Hanover, making her a fixture at arguably the best-known breakfast and lunch spot in the Upper Valley.

Now in Schneider’s time of need, Lou’s customers are giving back. More than 800 people have donated to a GoFundMe campaign that on Tuesday topped the $50,000 mark — in just two weeks.

“It’s a testament to her impact on the community,” said Kerry Rigas, a Hanover attorney who worked with Schneider at Lou’s when she was in high school and college. “She’s just a warm person and her attention to detail is amazing.”

Without hesitation, Schneider can rattle off the “I’ll-have-the-usual” breakfast orders of her regulars. Five days a week, the late Jim Campion, a Hanover business and civic leader, took his coffee black and asked that his one poached egg on rye toast come with a splash of A.1. steak sauce.

“Becky has a beautiful way of connecting with people,” said Pattie Fried, who owned Lou’s with her husband, Toby, from 1992 to 2018. “She remembers people and people remember her.”

The GoFundMe donations — and any future gifts — are being placed in a trust to help Schneider and her family with living and some medical expenses, including costly prescriptions.

“Becky is such a hard worker,” said Rigas, who handled the legal side of setting up the trust. “She’s had to hustle her whole life.”

Lou’s offers health insurance to its employees, with the restaurant picking up 70% of the monthly premiums, said Jarett Berke, who owns Lou’s with his wife, Cailin.

This year, with Schneider taking on the added responsibility — and costs — of caring for her grandchildren, she dropped her insurance, which would have cost her $185 a month, plus deductibles and co-payments. A DHMC social worker is now helping her with the paperwork to receive financial assistance for her growing medical bills.

Schneider started at Lou’s when she was a senior at Hanover High School. She left a couple of times, thinking she’d like to try her hand at a “more meaningful” career, she told me later on Monday when she had time to chat. But as a single mom, Schneider needed a steady income.

“Waitressing is hard, hard work, but at Lou’s, at least, it’s not just a job,” she said. “The people there care about each other.”

No one was more caring than Schneider, Rigas said. If a co-worker needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment, she’d volunteer. If another waitress was coming down with a cold, she’d cover their shift on her day off.

Schneider hasn’t been feeling well herself for a while. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, she was already dealing with a chronic pulmonary disease. “Becky was struggling with health issues before people were even aware of it,” said Fried, who helped get the GoFundMe drive off the ground.

Even after restaurants were allowed to reopen, the Berkes insisted that Schneider not take any chances by returning to work, but they continued to pay her. “We needed to take care of her,” Jarett Berke said.

When Schneider came back this summer, she stuck to making milkshakes and sandwiches to keep her contact with the public at a minimum. By early October, however, she was suffering from back pain that no amount of Tylenol would ease. “That’s when I finally decided something was wrong,” she said.

Last month, she began radiation treatments five days a week and also is undergoing chemotherapy.

Unable to work, Schneider worried about her mounting bills. Before the pandemic she had moved into a three-bedroom apartment so “my granddaughters could have their own rooms,” she said.

On Nov. 17, Schneider’s younger daughter — and her granddaughters’ aunt — created the GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $10,000. Her mom is the “glue of our family, the most selfless and loving person I have ever known,” wrote Sarah Schneider, who also works at Lou’s.

Within days, the $10,000 goal was eclipsed. Contributions have ranged from $10 to $2,000.

John Pepper, co-founder of the Boloco restaurant chain, met Schneider when he started eating at Lou’s as a Dartmouth undergraduate. Years later, Pepper, who lives in Norwich, remains a Lou’s regular with his wife, Maggie, and their kids.

After seeing that Pepper had contributed $500 to the cause, I emailed him. “When you visit Lou’s and Becky is in charge of your table, you feel like you are with a good family friend,” he wrote back.

Contributions have poured in from across the country. Many are from Dartmouth grads and former Upper Valley residents. A woman now living in Alabama wrote, “You’re one of the most personable, caring individuals that I know. You were responsible for me being a regular at Lou’s.”

The deluge of contributions in a short amount of time “speaks to how well she’s known and how much the community supports her,” Jarett Berke said.

Reading the notes from well-wishers has made Schneider realize that she was mistaken to sometimes think that waitressing wasn’t meaningful work.

“I’m in awe of what people have been writing,” she said. “It’s been very uplifting.”

Schneider has tough days ahead, but she’s staying positive. ” Giving up is not an option,” she told me. “I have grandchildren to raise.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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