NORMAL — The conference room for the marketing department at Illinois State University's College of Business was filled with a variety of cookies, fudge and Rice Krispie treats. They all had one common ingredient.
“They're all filled with love,” said Jan Staley, an office support specialist who this time of year is known simply as “The Cookie Lady.”
It all started 25 Christmases ago. Staley, a single mom, wanted a way to say thanks to everyone who had helped her when her daughter, Jordan, was born.
“I couldn't do a lot on a secretary's salary, but I knew I could bake,” Staley said as she set out the day's goodies in the decorated room last week.
“We look forward to this every year,” said Chiharu Ishida-Lambert, professor of marketing. “It's a tradition.”
The tradition has grown from cookie day to cookie week and from a department celebration to one that includes the entire College of Business.
Emails are sent and a “menu” is posted on the room's two doors listing what will be available each day, Monday through Wednesday. Thursday is “leftover day” with trays of cookies also placed in the downstairs atrium for students, with a sign that says, “Free cookies.”
“You'll be amazed by how quickly they disappear,” said Staley.
Horace Melton, interim chairman of the department, said, “It's a great way to end the semester.”
Cookie week takes place the final week of classes.
“This is a busy week for us,” said Ishida-Lambert. “Sometimes, this is my lunch.”
Melton said Staley “does a lot to bring a lot of cheer to the holiday season.”
Staley hadn't even finished putting out all the cookies when people started coming in for tastes.
Edgar Norton, professor of finance, insurance and law, quipped, “The vultures are here,” when he entered.
Staley, a Pontiac resident, started working at ISU nearly 30 years ago, and Norton said, “She can't retire because who's going to take it (cookie week) over? She's got a job for life.”
The cookie-making part of her job takes place during her Thanksgiving vacation, weekends and evenings.
Staley estimates that she baked for six or seven hours a day over a span of 12 days.
“The last couple of days have been very busy,” she said, but added, “This truly is a labor of love.”
About five years ago, she started keeping track of how many cookies she bakes, although her total doesn't include the numerous pieces of fudge and confectionery “bark.” The 2015 cookie total was 1,770.
Staley said she has the numbers written down for each variety of cookies she baked this year, but hasn't added them up yet. She probably wouldn't tell a nosy reporter anyway — at an upcoming faculty meeting, a prize will go to the person who makes the closest guess.
“I won it last year,” said Melton, who professed having no insider information.
Staley bakes them all, except for some caramel candies and peanut brittle made by former department Chairman Tim Longfellow and the red-and-green Rice Krispie treats.
Each year, she experiments with new recipes in addition to old favorites.
“Maple walnut fudge is a new one this year,” she said. Orange blossoms, Italian Christmas cookies and an Oreo cookie within a cookie also were new. Another, called “sweet and salty,” was made with refrigerated sugar cookie dough and crushed pretzels, she explained.
The cost of the project is more than $400, but Staley said she receives some financial donations to help cover the cost.
“I don't do this for the cheers and the rahs. It just started as a thank you,” she said, and when people walk out with smiles, “It doesn't matter how tired I am; that's when I know I've done something good.”