The Right Ingredients

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Pie day is an annual tradition where faculty make pies for staff but the event is about more than dessert.

UW Tacoma Associate Professor Jim Gawel pours a package of Biscoff Cookies into a food processor. He pushes a button. The cookies whirl, splinter and break into bits.  These crumbs will be mixed with some butter to form the crust for Gawel’s pumpkin mousse pie. The treat isn’t for Gawel, it’s for UW Tacoma staff as part of the university’s annual pie day.

Gawel spoons whip cream into a pie pan.Pie day began back in 1997 when then Associate Professor Mike Allen (now Emeritus Professor) wanted to thank staff for helping move everything from UW Tacoma’s temporary campus in the Perkins Building to the university’s current location.  According to Allen, “everything had to be moved — the entire library collection, furniture, files, phones, computer labs, faculty offices, student affairs and administration materials — everything.”

Staff and administration began the task in late August of that year and got everything set up before classes started in September. “When faculty members began arriving for work on the new campus, everything was ready,” said Allen. “Classes began that fall on schedule.”

“I remember that faculty volunteers used to put pie pieces on a cart and wheel them around campus to reach people who couldn’t leave their offices to actually attend the event.” – UW Tacoma Part-Time Lecturer Kim Davenport.”

Allen and other faculty wanted to “thank staff members for their heroic labor.” Thus, pie day was born on the day before Thanksgiving vacation 22 years ago.  The tradition has continued unabated. Gawel came to campus in 1998 and has participated in every pie day since.

The event has evolved to include a friendly competition. Different faculty make pies and bring them to the party where they’re voted on by staff. The “winner” gets bragging rights and a small prize like a gift card for coffee. Gawel won once and has been dubbed by Allen as the “Susan Lucci of pies.” Lucci starred in the ABC soap opera “All My Children.” She received 19 Daytime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series between 1978 and 1999 but only won once. 

“Originally, pie day meant basically one thing – FREE FOOD!!!! Now that I’m almost grown up I have a better understanding of the dynamics, hierarchy, and relationship between faculty and staff.  This understanding leads me to truly appreciate the gesture of goodwill and thanks being made by the faculty.  It feels nice to be valued.” – UW Tacoma Senior Web Developer James Woods. Woods attended the first pie day.

Gawel laughs off his nickname. Winning isn’t the point. UW Tacoma is less than 30 years old and the university’s status as a “commuter school” makes it difficult to start traditions. This is changing, just look at Convocation or the annual giant “W” photo. Pie day has these beat by a number of years. Indeed, the yearly day of thanks speaks to something baked into campus. Pie day isn’t about pie, it’s about people. People are the most important ingredients in this particular recipe.

We took our recording equipment to Gawel’s house to get his thoughts on pie day. In this episode of the UW Tacoma podcast Paw'd Defiance, Gawel discusses the tradition as well his love of baking and learning how to make pie crusts from his grandmother. Listen: The Susan Lucci of Pies

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / November 27, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or