Last updated on February 1, 2016
Karen Pratt said she believes that a person can wake up in the morning and decide, “will I smile today? Or will I be a grouch?”
Pratt said she prefers to smile. “It’s just easier,” she said.
Students might have encountered Pratt’s warm, positive attitude during the lunch rush at the Volunteer State Grill. Pratt has quickly become a staple of the Grill, but she is not originally from Tennessee.
She grew up in Ticonderoga, New York, a town with only about 5,000 people.
Pratt got her Bachelor of Science degree at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. From there she pursued her Master’s degree at Castleton State College in Vermont.
She went on to teach middle and high school students in the day, and is no stranger to the community college environment as she would teach nightly statistics classes at her town’s local community college.
Pratt retired in June of 2014 just before she and her husband decided to pick up and move to Tennessee.
“It was quite an adventure for us to do something like that, just pick up and go,” Pratt said with a smile.
Her husband got a job as a store manager at Lowe’s. “I didn’t really know anybody around the area,” said Pratt. “So I said, I gotta get out because all I’m doing is sitting here and talking to my dogs.”
When a few different career websites did not work for her, Pratt’s husband suggested she try Craiglist, where she saw the ad for work at the Vol State Grill.
“I started working in the kitchen in the winter of last year,” said Pratt. “I think they moved me to cashier probably because I was making too much of a mess in the kitchen.”
“There was flour all over the place and all over me. Nobody else was having that problem, so I think it was their nice way of telling me my place wasn’t in the kitchen,” Pratt said with a laugh.
Pratt, luckily, thrives when interacting with people, especially students.
“When I was teaching middle and high school I learned that you have to have a certain personality to reach kids,” Pratt said.
“If you can’t joke around with them, if you can’t smile, you won’t grab them. When I retired, I just had to go out and be with people. It became a part of me,” she said.
“You can tell that some people are going through things sometimes. One lady just lost a son. Another girl had a miscarriage. People go through a lot. You get a sense of it. Sometimes you look at them, and they seem down. If you give them a smile, they can’t help but smile back,” Pratt said.
Pratt has seen how stress affects students as the semester wears on. “One kid walked in and told me ‘I just had a midterm. I didn’t know we were having a midterm today,’” said said.
“I offer my assistance to help kids out with their math homework, but no one has taken me up on it yet,” Pratt said while laughing.
Pratt is not unaccustomed to volunteering her time to help others. When she was 24, Pratt joined the Peace Corps on an extended stay in northern Africa. She taught calculus to the locals there.
One night Pratt opened her eyes to see a man in her room.
“We were told, in the beginning, not to move or they might kill us. He took everything. Even our alarm clock.
“After eight months, I was ready to go home. I was glad to have the experience, but I chose to go home,” Pratt said.
Students can return Pratt’s welcoming smile every day of the week at the Vol State Grill.