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Phyllis Bilton: Back on the Grind

Sean Seifert 

Features Editor

At 5 o’clock in the morning, the campus of Springfield College is still sleeping. The buzz of the school day has yet to begin, and the only noise that can be heard is the occasional car crawling down Alden Street, sending an echo across the center of campus. A purple sky hangs above Lake Massasoit, and 76-year-old Phyllis Bilton quietly shuffles across campus. Where you would expect to cross paths with a tumbleweed, you will find Bilton with a bounce in her step as she makes her way to the center of campus to throw on the morning’s first pot of coffee at Springfield College.

Bilton and her coworker Ceil Friedenberg open the doors of the still dark Richard B. Flynn Campus Union and greet the lonely janitor fast at work as they head downstairs. The glowing neon Dunkin’ Donuts sign gives Bilton light as she unlocks the security gate at the coffee shop and slides the metal partition to the side, entering her workplace – one of her favorite places in the world.

Clad in her freshly ironed orange and pink employee uniform, Bilton prepares her station for a long, busy day of work. Bilton takes out her measurement log and begins a complex process of weighing the precise amounts of coffee grounds, spring water and creamer that make up the perfect cup of coffee. The brew-master takes a single filter from a towering stack and puts her Petri dish of a coffee pot in place – an exact science as she and Friedenberg will tell you. The inviting aroma of the roast makes its way back up the stairs to the janitor as Bilton fixes her silver hair and straightens her beige Dunkin’ Donuts visor. “It is going to be a good day,” she tells herself.

With a friendly smile, Bilton has worked at the Springfield College Dunkin’ Donuts for the past eight years. At her age, Bilton says she never could have imagined working long, busy hours at a coffee shop. At the same time, she says she couldn’t imagine being retired.

“I tried that whole retirement thing once,” said Bilton. “It lasted about six months, and I got bored.”

A devout people-person, Bilton says she has always preferred to be busy. Bilton spent a majority of her life working, and working hard. After graduating from Commerce High School, just a few blocks from Springfield College, Bilton spent 17 years selling China crystal and silver, a business that eventually burned out on her. At the age of 48, Bilton enrolled herself in the accounting program at Springfield Technical Community College in order to begin a more sustainable career.

“It got to that point where everyone was beginning to need college degrees in order to get a decent job, so I did it,” said Bilton.

So her hard work began. For the next 20 years of her life, Bilton worked as the regional manager of Hallmark Cards.

“That was a neat job. I had my own car and I was my own boss – didn’t pay too bad either,” said Bilton with a chuckle.

Bilton would spend her days traveling to Hallmark retail stores throughout New England and New York to collect reports and organize service, but she says what she remembers most was just interacting with people. Bilton had a steady job, got married, had children and called Hampden, Mass. home for the span of her married life. Then, in 1982, Bilton got divorced. No longer in need of her spacious house in Hampden, Bilton retraced her steps back to her Springfield roots.

Back in Springfield, Bilton began to get worn down by her traveling job with Hallmark.

“It was a lot of work, and the problem was that the work always came home with me. I couldn’t get away from it,” said Bilton.

With a lengthy career behind her, Bilton decided it was time to retire. Bilton assumed the role of the retiree with enthusiasm at first. A cup of coffee here, a book there – Bilton was living the dream. Then she got bored. As independent as Bilton prides herself on being, there was a whole lot missing from her retired life, she says: interaction, conversation, people. So Bilton marched up the street to Springfield College and retired from retirement, eagerly becoming a Dunkin’ Donuts employee and getting back to work.

Groggy students pour into the Campus Union early before class every morning, following their noses straight to Dunkin’ Donuts and forming a winding line that extends out the door. A “deluge,” Bilton calls it. Amongst this overflow, Bilton and her coworkers move like well-oiled machines, seemingly covering miles of tiled floor as they fill students’ orders, not missing a single creamer or sugar in the rush. If a tired student asks for a sprinkled donut, Bilton wraps up the treat and hands it over with the tenderness of a grandmother baking a tray of fresh cookies. Bilton is in her element at Dunkin’, providing students with a vital part of their day – a fresh cup of liquid mercy.

“While I’m here, I just enjoy every bit of it. I enjoy the people I work with, I enjoy the kids, I enjoy the fancy coffees that you push the buttons for. I just love it,” said Bilton. “If I was retired, what would I do? I would stay in bed in the morning, I’d get dressed halfway through the day, probably read a book after the house was clean, maybe read another book. I can’t do that now that I work here.”

Working at Dunkin’ wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the team of women she works with, according to Bilton. The support of Friedenberg, Miriam Rodriguez and Leslie Santiago is what makes working at the coffee shop so fulfilling.

“It is very much a team effort here. We all work together very cohesively,” said Bilton, who, along with her ladies, doesn’t skip a beat as they work through rush hour with a system of perfection.

Bilton also makes it a point to know her customers by name. She even knows what a majority of them will order before they hand over their Pride cards.

“Most of the time I just know what they want, and they know that I do,” she said.

Those not seasoned enough to be on a first-name basis with Bilton are greeted by her trademark “Hellllloooooo, what can I get for you today?” with a sincere smile. A full tip cup overflows on the countertop of her station as Bilton pours away. The Dunkin’ ladies donate the spare change to needy Springfield families around the holidays, and her role as Santa is just something Bilton says she does on the side, “the least we can do.”

The family Bilton has created at her three-foot countertop at Dunkin’ Donuts has made her get out of bed even quicker in the morning.

“I sure as heck don’t do it for the money,” Bilton says with a laugh. “I do it for the kids.”

With her son and grandchildren living in Florida, and her daughter and her children living in Somers, Conn., Bilton punches the clock every morning at the crack of dawn eager to see her Springfield College kids. When she is asked about retirement now, Bilton just smirks.

“I don’t know. We’ll see, maybe a few more years. Maybe I’ll get tired.”

At the end of her shift, Bilton reluctantly calls it a day and weaves throughout the bustling midday campus, still proudly sporting her employee uniform like a badge of honor. A five-minute drive away, Bilton pulls into the driveway of her cape-style house with the second floor that she rents out to college students.  Keying in, Bilton is welcomed by her cats, Jake and Sassy, as she walks through the door. She takes a deep breath knowing that work didn’t follow her home today, and that it will be waiting for her right up the street in the morning. Setting her alarm, she hangs up her uniform and gets some valuable rest knowing the kids at school will be tired in the morning, and the coffee isn’t going to brew itself.

Sean Seifert may be reached at 

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