When Michele Martinez is working in Fields Dining Hall, she is impossible to miss. Her eye-catching style and warm personality have made her a beloved figure on campus. Martinez’ story, however, extends beyond the confines of the host stand and far beyond that of Palatine Hill.
When it comes to her work, what Martinez loves most is interacting with the Lewis & Clark community.
“One of my favorite things in here is to listen to the laughter,” Martinez said. “You know what I mean, just hearing people, man. Enjoying all y’all here, somebody just busts out laughing. It does my heart good.”
LC students perhaps know Martinez best for her personalized fashion sense. Her style is characterized by bold colors, quirky accessories and playful patterns. Her ornate, turquoise jewelry and dangly earrings are a staple look of hers. Though her fashion holds distinctly cohesive quality, she holds no loyalty to particular stores or aesthetics.
“I’m like a little bird, and when I see something, it’s like, oh, shiny, I like that,” she said.
In addition to her creative fashion choices, many people are curious about where Martinez gets her elaborate nails done. Martinez shared that she frequents “Classic Nails” in Gresham.
Martinez has worked at LC for more than 30 years, and is currently Bon Appétit’s longest-serving staff member. Her mother, Patricia Wahlsmith, was a longtime chef who began working at LC in the ’80s. Martinez joined her at the dining hall.
“I was lucky to have my momma and my best friend wrapped in one,” Martinez said.
Martinez passed on the family tradition to all three of her children, who have worked in the Bon before. At one point, three generations of her family worked together. Welcoming LC into her own family, Martinez recently shared her own recipe with Bon Appétit for the community to enjoy: her famous sloppy Joe’s.
Martinez has eight grandchildren, and though one is not her biological relative, she explains “you don’t separate” family.
“You’re not my blood, it doesn’t matter. You’re my blood. You’re my baby,” Martinez said.
Similarly, she describes appreciation for the large family she grew up with.
“My stepfather was a good man, taught us respect, responsibility, a value of job,” she said. “I got very lucky, I got two beautiful father figures in my life.”
Martinez credits her approach to life to her eccentric father, who always encouraged her to be herself and not to conform to society’s expectations. She remembers him tinkering in their garage and hearing the sounds of his Harley-Davidson engine.
“He always used to tell us, ‘Be anique; don’t be like everybody else,’” Martinez said. “And it wasn’t unique, it was anique,”
Another family member who played a role in shaping her identity was her grandfather, who she said had hair even longer than hers.
“My grandfather was an old hippie and he used to tell me, he says, I’m like a mirror (of him),” Martinez said.
Like many LC students, Martinez grew up in the Bay Area, moving to Portland when she was 13. Prior to starting at LC, she had a roundabout journey that included being a pastry chef and bartending, meaningful experiences she describes fondly.
“When I first started here, I bartended nights and I worked here during the days,” Martinez said. “When I went to Montana and I came back, they gave me an opportunity in the bakery, and they go, ‘You’re a natural.’ And so I went from just a job to a career.”
Beyond work, Martinez has a rich adventurous side. In her free time, she goes mud and bubble racing with her daughter and granddaughter. A mud race is a 5K walk or race through mud, whereas a bubble race is a race where the participants run through dye-filled bubbles. She recalled one experience at one such race with her niece.
“I never laughed so hard as watching my niece,” Martinez said. “She went up, over, and completely under. And came back up and she was just covered in mud.”
Her breadth of experience and earned wisdom have taught her to prioritize joy, focusing on the things that really matter.
“You know what, like I said, life’s too short, why sweat the small stuff, you know what I mean?” Martinez said.
Martinez is admired by many for her dedication to her work, love for family, and commitment to fostering a caring community. Her positive qualities can inspire others to strive for excellence in their own lives. Martinez is highly regarded in her community, and many people appreciate the contributions she makes to LC.