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After 6 Decades, Emma Gunsallus Says Goodbye to The Corner Room

by on January 15, 2018 3:05 PM

It's been a common sight over the years to see customers at The Corner Room make a point of saying hi and giving a hug to Emma Gunsallus. But for the past couple weeks it's been a little different.

Many have been coming by not just to say hello, but also farewell, as Gunsallus is retiring from work at the historic State College restaurant after six decades. Tuesday will be her last day on the job.

"I loved it, or I wouldn’t have stayed. The people here are wonderful," Gunsallus said of both her co-workers and customers. "They’re all good friends."

The restaurant at the corner of College and Allen has been operating as The Corner Room for 92 years, and Gunsallus has been there for nearly two-thirds of it. Starting there in 1957 when she was 19-years-old, she left for a year when her husband, Elmer, was stationed in Oklahoma during his U.S. Army service. But after returning to the area, she came back to the restaurant and continued working there for just about 60 years.

As The Corner Room has become an icon, Gunsallus, a Zion native who still makes her home there with her son and daughter, has represented what has made it so special to generations of residents and Penn Staters.

"It’s been years of setting what the tradition of the Corner Room is – a friendly place to meet people," said co-owner John Cocolin. "She has so many people come in and give her a kiss and a hug."

After working as a server, Gunsallus has in recent years been a hostess and greeter, the smiling face welcoming patrons back to their regular dining spot or a fondly-remembered old haunt.

She has befriended countless customers over that time, many of whom have made sure to stop in over the past week to give her a hug, some bringing cards, cookies, flowers or candy.

Richard Tetzlaff was one of those customers who was sure to stop in to see Gunsallus before she left. When he had an office downtown, Tetzlaff, who now works for Wells Fargo in State College, would go The Corner Room nearly every morning.

"Part of the charm of downtown State College is coming down to see Emma and the people that work here at The Corner Room," he said. "For alumni and people who moved away, she’s been a staple. She’s one of the things that make the whole area special. There’s just certain things you want to see that remind you of your time here and Emma’s one of them."

During her time at the restaurant, Gunsallus has met a few U.S. Presidents who were visiting Penn State. She's appeared on specials profiling The Corner Room on the Food Network and Big Ten Network. She's seen many changes -- both to the restaurant and the borough.

And she became friends with people of all ages, including Joe Paterno, with whom she had a warm relationship.

Paterno made The Corner Room a regular stop for Saturday morning breakfasts with recruits and made sure to sit in Gunsallus' section. In what would become a running gag between the two, she would lead him into the dining room as if taking him to his table, only to lead him on a circular path back out to the lobby.

The coach was always happy to see her, greeting her with a hug and a kiss.

"He was good to everybody but I thought a lot of him," she said.

Her impact has reached across generations, too. On Monday morning, 6-year-old Mason Smith of State College, whose father, Brian, worked at the restaurant in the past, stopped over to the table where Gunsallus was seated to give her a hug, "because she's pretty," he said.

Mason Smith gives a hug to Emma Gunsallus on Monday at The Corner Room. Photo by Geoff Rushton/

Cocolin said what has made Gunsallus so special to The Corner Room is simple.

"She just always has a smile, she’s never sick and the customers love her," he said.

He added the Gunsallus almost never called off from work, only missing time when she fell on her way to the restaurant's Christmas party, an annual event that she also never missed.

"She’s just someone the customers always ask for," added The Corner Room's Twila Sharbaugh. "They’ve been coming here for years and she’s been serving them. Even when she was up here and not serving she would bring them coffee and do as much as she could. She liked to talk to them."

Tetzlaff said Gunsallus has a way of making everyone feel special. When she was still a server and would see him come in, Gunsallus would tell the hostess to put him in her section. And whether she was serving or greeting, she always worked to make sure customers had a good experience.

"She’s sweet to everybody, and she knows everybody. She’s like everybody’s grandma," he said. 

"The thing about Emma is she could talk about anything. She could talk about Penn State sports. I’ve heard her talk about local sprint car racing. I’ve heard her talk about local politics. She knew everybody."

Cocolin said about 80 people have come in to the restaurant in the past few days just because they wanted to see Gunsallus and give her a hug.

"It makes me feel good," Gunsallus said. "I think everybody would, because [it means] they like you.

Gunsallus said she'll use her new free time to do work around her house and for the first time in years she will plant a garden this spring. But she'll still come back to The Corner Room from time to time to say hello to co-workers and old friends.

"If they want me, I’d love to."

After years of making The Corner Room feel like home for so many, it's safe to say they will want her to.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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