To celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary, FIU News is sharing 50 moments in FIU’s history as part of our “50@50″ series.
By Joel Delgado ’12 MS ’17
Long before there was a Chili’s Too, Subway or Burger King on campus, there was Gracie DiStefano and her outdoor hamburger grill.
DiStefano was hired by FIU shortly after the university opened to run a backyard grill on the outside patio of the Rathskeller, a popular student hangout spot at the time (the Graham Center computer lab occupies the space now).
When a more permanent grill was established, enthusiastic students put up a sign next to her grill that read “Gracie’s Grill.” The name stuck.
But DiStefano was known for much more than her exceptional burgers.
When students were short on money, Gracie’s Grill didn’t turn any customers away. DiStefano would regularly give away free hamburgers and cheeseburgers to cash-strapped students and she became a beloved university figure among FIU community members.
Professor Emeritus Brian Nelson, one of FIU’s founding faculty members, still remembers DiStefano’s generosity and kindness toward students who came to her.
“She became the students’ mom away from home and she was greatly beloved by the students,” Nelson said of DiStefano, who was easily recognizable on campus with her trademark colorful horizontal striped shirt and a hat with the word “Smile” on it. “She meant a great deal to them.”
DiStefano passed away in 1988, but her name lived on and her legacy is still honored by the university community. In 1991, during the first major renovation in the Graham Center’s history, a new and modern Gracie’s Grill was constructed on the other side of the building. Located next to the Porter Davis Game Room, Gracie’s Grill was a popular food spot on campus for a number of years.
Before he retired in 2007, Nelson worked to ensure that the “Gracie’s Grill” name would not be forgotten. He helped the Student Government Association pass a resolution in 2008 that stated that “the name ‘Gracie’ shall be retained in perpetuity for this or any future eating establishment that may replace it.”
Nelson also wrote a note with a short biography of Gracie DiStefano and the story behind Gracie’s Grill. The note and SGA resolution were framed and hung in the hallway between Chili’s Too and the game room.
“For faculty, she was simply a wonderful person to talk to. For students, she was that and much more,” Nelson wrote. “She was their campus mom, always willing to listen to their problems and offer advice.”
Today, the outside patio area of Chili’s Too is named Gracie’s Plaza in her honor.