Owner of Kimball Properties
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
The Early Years
I’m from Cuba City, on the western side of the state. We lived on a dairy farm and I attended a county school, a one-room schoolhouse, with 12 students enrolled. I was the only one in my class!
My paternal grandparents had four children, including my father. When he and his brothers were old enough, they went to work with their uncles on the farms. My grandfather was killed in a mining accident and my grandmother used the insurance money to send the girls to nursing school. She also built a rooming house for the miners.
Nancy's parents, Elfreda and Roudell Robbins, a young Nancy Robbins and Nancy and her younger sister, Carol
My grandmother worked really hard. She used to say, “Hard work doesn’t kill you.” She would do all the laundry for those workers, cook all the lunches for the miners and do so much work. I learned a lot from her. We all did. She had a large garden and used the produce for cooking. I looked up to her as a role model. She lived to be 103!
As my parents had no sons, I was kind of the “boy” in the family. I had one younger sister, Carol. My sister did the indoor chores in the house. I didn’t mind working outside and doing the tough chores. I never really thought of it as “work”.
When I was about six or seven years old, I learned to drive the jeep around our property wherever I wanted to. Somehow, I managed to reach the pedals!
I had dogs, cats and a pony, while on the farm. It was a good life. My late husband, Bob, also grew up on a farm. That’s a funny thing, that we never ended up in the country, because we both liked it. I think kids lose a lot by not living on a farm.
In high school, I rode the bus to school, which wasn’t too far into town, about five minutes from Cuba City. All my friends lived in town, too.
As far as extracurricular activities, there weren’t a lot of opportunities back then compared to today. I did take piano lessons for a time, when I was young, but my sister is a much better piano player.
During high school, I played the saxophone and sang in the church choir. I enjoyed marching in the parades and playing at the football games and such. We’d also play in Platteville and Dubuque, as we were down there in the corner of the tri-state area.
At the time, I wanted to be a secretary. I was really good at shorthand and was the fastest typist. Women didn’t seem to have a lot of options back then for career choices. There just weren’t a lot of jobs for women. You either worked in an office, or became a teacher or a nurse.
My uncle was the Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and the only educated man in the family. My dad’s sisters were nurses, but the boys didn’t get an education. Only the girls were educated.
I worked for a year after high school at the state office building in Madison. I roomed with a couple of other girls. That’s when I realized, after only six months, that I didn’t want to be a secretary! They had me filing stuff all day.
One of my roommates, my long-time best friend, talked me into going to UW Platteville. Education was my niche, so I graduated in three years, going to summer school to finish early, earning a degree in Elementary Education. I found it enjoyable and loved being around people.
I lived in an apartment house called The Pink House, run by a lady who was a widow. It was a rooming house for girls. I had three roommates in my bedroom. We had a common living room and basement that was used for meals. We took turns cooking. Some of those girls were really good cooks, so we learned from each other. I stayed there throughout my college years.
Landing in Janesville
After college, in the mid-fifties, I got a job teaching third grade at Wilson Elementary in Janesville. There were four women from UW Platteville who were hired in Janesville that year. So, my girlfriends and I rented a house belonging to a lady who spent the winters in Florida. She left everything there for us and we just moved in with our suitcases. I lived so cheap! We had to have a car, but the rest was easy.
Wilson was a wonderful school. I had between 27 and 35 kids. But, so did the other teachers.
I worked in Janesville for a few years, but we didn’t have a lot for young people to do here, other than Izzy’s bar. Janesville was growing, because of GM, but there were no tennis clubs or anything. We could get on a train at the station downtown and go to Chicago, so we did that sometimes. Some of the other girls got married, or took other jobs in bigger towns.
I taught in Sussex for three and a half years. My friend was hired there, as well. That worked out, as she played the piano and I was the creative one. We worked well together with the children.
Then we’d go out in Milwaukee, as there was a lot to do there in the big city. We lived in a big house, four of us rooming together. The house was on Pewaukee Lake and it came with a boat! It was only a fishing boat but we had a lot of fun with it.
I was planning to go back to Janesville to visit a friend for the weekend. Meanwhile, my friend knew a woman whose daughter had once been in my class and loved me. Coincidentally, the woman was having her sidewalk put in by Bob Kimball.
When Bob had left, after working on the sidewalk, my friend and the woman were discussing my upcoming visit and thought they should set me up with Bob, who was a single guy.
So, I had been told that I would be going on a double date with my friend and her date. It was basically a blind date with Bob!
I think I was pretty lucky. I had been dating someone else, but then I met Bob. And Bob was kind of lucky, too. At the time, I was educated, had no "baggage" and had my own money in the bank. I was 27 and he was 31.
He really courted me. He had a natural charm; he’d call me every morning and sent me flowers every week. That was in 1962.
We married in December of 1963. Normally, I would never have gotten married in the middle of the school year, but he convinced me to get married in December. He used to joke that it was because of taxes.
The day before we got married, it was below zero and Bob was pouring a basement for an eight-unit apartment out on East Milwaukee! I remember that well.
Around that time, I quit teaching.
While I was pregnant, I did some substitute teaching in Janesville. We had our children in January of 1965.
Bob seemed to have a premonition that we’d have twins, because he kept saying that, even as I went into the delivery room. We didn’t know we were having twins, because they were on top of each other in the womb. When we were buying things for the nursery, the guy at the furniture store said that if we had twins, we’d get the second set free.
Then the twins arrived! So, we got that second furniture set! Todd came first and then shortly after we were surprised with Robin! We didn’t get that end of year deduction, though. But they were healthy little babies and I really felt so lucky!
I stayed home while raising the children. Meanwhile, I did some volunteering and played tennis.
Todd lives here in town with Jeni. He really knows the business, having grown up working alongside his dad. He knows so much more than I do, including history and all. Even with his busy schedule, he is over to the house often, filling the bird feeders and checking in on me.
Robin lives in North Carolina with her husband, Charlie. They have three children, Oliver, Lydia and Dorrit. Robin is a go-getter; she was always game for everything and very independent. They both are, really.
She recently published her book, A Gift for Life: Skills Everyone Needs to Win (available on Amazon and soon on Audible).
I’m very proud of the kids and of our grandchildren.
Becoming a Realtor
Even when the kids were little, I would show people the apartments in the two eight-units Bob had built. I’d work with a kid on each hip.
Then, he acquired two more apartment buildings, eight units each. So that’s how the whole thing started. He belonged to the Builder’s Association and became president. Every year they had a big conference with several speakers and such. But, for the women, they would have things like putting on lipstick or getting your nails done. Instead, I chose to go to the meetings and lectures with Bob and learned what I could.
He had sold two buildings on the south side and I thought I’d see if I could do this professionally. So, I studied and took the test, becoming a realtor. This was around the time the children were in middle school. Once I got my license, I had a desk waiting for me!
I worked for Keefe Real Estate, out of Lake Geneva. They recently sold to Compass. I did very well in the work, and I loved it! I had loved teaching, too, so I really loved both of my jobs.
Selling real estate was much more lucrative, for sure. I made in three months what I would make in a whole year of teaching!
I mainly sold houses. Then I started going to real estate seminars. Through that I met a coach in California and learned a lot from him over many years.
A Successful Career
The real estate business was very male-dominated. When I started selling real estate it was 90% men. I knew of one other woman who was quite successful in her own real estate company. I was very excited for the opportunity.
My production numbers were really good. And I helped make the companies very successful because of my work ethic. Mainly, I sold homes and commercial buildings in the Rock County area.
I sold many houses in Janesville, some of them two or three times. But, that’s part of the business, if they like you, they ask you to come back and sell it. I loved finding the right house for people and seeing them happy with it.
I think part of the reason I was successful was that people felt that they could trust me. Buyers need to feel a sense of trust with a realtor. And you have to care. Many realtors are in it for the money. But, when people are buying a house, this is typically the biggest transaction in their lives.
There were some occasions when I had to sort of nudge the buyers in another direction, especially if I knew it wasn’t a good fit for their level of income. Though I had to be careful about doing that.
If Bob and I would go somewhere, I was often known as “Bob’s wife”. But then, when I was doing so well in real estate, we once went to a real estate conference and people were referring to him as “Nancy’s husband”. That was kind of nice to be recognized.
When I worked at the office here in town on Milton Avenue and Blackbridge Road, sometimes people would come to me for storage units and I would refer them to Bob. That was a nice partnership.
I sold real estate for 40 years! I enjoyed the work and that showed. I never called it “work”.
Later, I had been asked to teach a realtor class and, looking back, I wonder if maybe I should have done that. But, I’m active with the property business now.
Life with Bob
Bob and I shared a lot. I miss that…not having someone to share the business with. He was such a great part of my life.
I didn’t realize we had a lot in common, but we actually did. We balanced each other. He was social, and a lot of men aren’t social, so that was nice. When we wanted to do something fun or travel together, we would just do it.
Bob never really retired. He would always go into the office. It was only in his last year that he didn’t go in.
After he was gone, I reflected on my life with him and felt that I had been blessed to meet him, marry him and to have the twins! I feel so lucky. It wasn’t always easy. When you’re a builder, you take a big chance…the markets fluctuate so much. For Bob, it was often up and down.
You know, when you get married, I’d say you’re lucky if it lasts. There are so many obstacles, so you have to give as much as you take. I feel lucky we made it!
We traveled a lot. When we were first married, we took a Caribbean cruise. I’d like to do that again sometime.
A favorite was our family trip to Africa. That was due to my coach in California who always had me thinking bigger. It’s the only way to grow. I had wanted to do a big family trip. Bob and I had already been to Africa, and I knew one day I wanted to go back with our grandkids.
We figured out the budget, etc. Robin kind of nudged me along with the plans. So, then it happened! You can’t just think about it, you have to make solid plans.
The two Bobs, Kimball and Ozburn, and their sons Todd and Chris took that great rafting trip down the Mississippi. At the time, I decided I wouldn’t worry about things I had no control over. But, when I was told about how they got stuck in the swamp, the trip with Al Castro, and they were stranded in the floodwaters, that was concerning. I had a lot of confidence in the two Bobs, though.
My husband had a corkscrew collection and belonged to an international and a Canadian club. I was never one to have a hobby, as I was always so busy. I did have a collection of paperweights, which Bob started collecting for me. But now I have enough of those! So, he liked traveling for that reason, because he’d have something to do and could find another corkscrew, unique art and other collectors’ items.
We’d gone to Europe several times. I really loved Brussels, Italy and Greece. I’d easily go back to Italy and Greece. I loved everything about Europe.
I’m going to a seminar next week in Las Vegas on self-storage to learn what more we can do with them, more creative options. I don’t know why I’m so excited about it. My daughter said, “Mom, it’s because you haven’t attended any educational conferences since you retired.”
I really like traveling alone, because you learn more when you are one person. Maybe I’ll do a Caribbean cruise by myself again someday.
Bob was always good with charity work and giving back to the community. He was involved in the Rotary Club, the Rock County Historical Society, including moving the Frances Willard Schoolhouse to both the fairgrounds and later to RCHS. In 2017, when the Rock River Charter School had talked about moving, because they weren’t able to afford to stay in their building, Bob prevented the move by giving them the building. They renamed it the Kimball Education Center. In so many ways he was very generous with the community.
Recently, our family has been involved with helping improve the downtown and with the art groups. Todd has volunteered a lot of his time.
The first mural we were connected to was on the Fredendall building, the carousel horses, painted by Jessie Willyerd and Tim Cahill. Last year, we were happy to donate the wall on the Kimball Education Center building for Art Infusion. That’s the beautiful mural with the otters by Miami artist, Ivan Roque.
After Bob passed, we organized the first Duck Race in memory of Bob, racing the rubber ducks on the Rock River as a fundraiser for Downtown Janesville, Inc. By divine intervention, Catherine Ozburn Barton had the winning lucky yellow duck and graciously donated the money back to the downtown organization.
This year, we donated the Gloria the Eagle sculpture to be installed in the Town Square. Scott Petranek, who knew the sculptor, Richard Lazcano, introduced Richard to Todd. Todd said, “Oh, Mom, you’re just going to love it!” I met Richard when Gloria was still at his father-in-law’s place. It’s a truly amazing work of art.
Bob loved eagles, for one thing. I don’t know if it was their massive size or beauty, but he really loved seeing them. He had previously donated to the local Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center, where they help rehabilitate injured eagles. Gloria, the sculpture, is so strong and big, kind of majestic. It’s like his personality. Bob was a big thinker. The project all came together so well. I know he would have loved it! It would have been something he would have chosen. Every time I go down there to see it, I say a little prayer for Bob.
We are so proud to live in Janesville and watch it continue to grow!
I eat well and I exercise every day and lead a healthy life. You can’t just lie around. I walk on my treadmill every morning for 45 minutes, then do a leg routine and then I use the elliptical machine for a while. It’s about an hour a day. Todd had installed an elevator in the house for me, but I still use the stairs most of the time.
And I’m still working. I’d be completely bored if I weren’t working with our family business with Todd as president. I have people ask me, “Why are you still working?” I say, “Because I really love it!” I like helping people and contributing to the growth of Janesville.
As I reflect on my life, I am grateful for so many opportunities and excited for the years ahead.