Neil & Kay Deupree
A Life of Love and Service to Our Community
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Interview with Kay Deupree
Founder of the Wilson School Garden
Fourth Ward Neighborhood Action Team Member
Former Director of Nutrition Education Program, UW Extension Rock County
Former Janesville City Council Member
Former President of the Janesville League of Women Voters
YWCA Women of Distinction Recipient - 2012
Civil Rights Service Award - UAW Local 95 - 2017
LWVWI Meg McLane Award for Advocacy - 2019
The Early Years
I grew up in Reddick, Illinois, a little farming community. There were about 25 in my graduating class. I went to school in town, taking the school bus.
Living on the farm, I had chores and responsibilities. I was the middle child. I had an older sister and a younger brother, who was 10 years younger. So, he wasn’t much help with the farm chores. I fed the baby calves a kind of baby formula, and I would mix it up and train them to drink the milk. I also put the milkers together each night.
Leadership skills ran in the family, as my dad had been involved in the local Farm Bureau group and my mother was in a homemaker’s group and served as a 4-H Leader. They were a positive example for me.
I attended high school in Reddick, in one of the last classes before they consolidated and kids had to ride the bus a lot farther.
In high school, I was a cheerleader. I had been one in elementary school, and just continued that into high school.
I was also involved in band, playing the alto saxophone, but also played baritone sax. It was a big instrument to take home on the bus, especially when I had to walk a half mile home because the roads were too muddy for the bus!
Our mother had attended college at Illinois State for a year or two. Then, my sister had gone down to study at Illinois State, as well, which was in Normal, Illinois. I knew I wanted to go to college, but decided to go somewhere different.
I ended up at Iowa State University. I appreciated being there and got to know people. My major was Textiles and Clothing. I’m sure I wouldn’t have chosen that major today.
In college, I was on the Dean’s Board at the Home Economics College. We would meet with the dean and talk about any issues we were aware of. I was also president of my resident’s hall, Linden East Hall.
Having been in such a small school back home, I learned to take on leadership roles…you didn’t have the choice not to.
I had thought I would go into merchandising. Between my junior and senior year, I went down to Kansas City to work at Macy’s and then realized that I really didn’t want to do that.
After graduating, I was hired by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were testing new permanent press fabric softeners and were looking to find out how fabrics would react. I started in the Home Economics department. People would bring in their laundry and we would do the testing, observing how the detergents would affect the permanent press finish.
Eventually, I was transferred to the brand Camay. Safeguard had just come out. They were looking into antibacterial products. That was kind of fun, because we ran tests out in the field. We would give people bars of soap each week and then interview them about their reactions.
I went from working with all women to working with mostly men.
Interview with Neil Deupree
Former Pastor of First Christian Church
Former Chaplain for Agrace Hospice
Former Chaplain for Allied Automotive Co
Former Peace Corps Volunteer - Philippines
Former Rock County Board Member
Former President of the Green-Rock Audubon Society
Fourth Ward Neighborhood Action Team Member
Diversity Action Team Board Member
Member of Rock County Conservationists
The Early Years
I was born in Woodbine, Iowa, just about 50 miles northeast of Omaha, on the west side of the state. Our town’s population was just under 1,500.
As I was growing up, my grandparents lived on the family farm, and a couple of my uncles worked there and took turns living there with my grandfather.
I have a sister, who is two years younger. We attended school in Woodbine until 5th grade.
Our father was a great one for opportunity. In Woodbine, he ran a theater and an attached café. After that, he sold Hudson cars for a while, back in the 50s.
During the Korean War, they were hiring people to work in munitions. My father took a job in Fremont, Nebraska, about 50 miles west of where we were and we moved there when I was in 6th grade.
I attended high school in Fremont and would drive my sister to school during those last couple of years. For activities, I was in band on flute and piccolo and, before that, I played the glockenspiel in the marching band.
What kept me most busy during those years was my paper route. I had about 120 different customers and every night I would convince my mother and sister to help me fold the papers, so I could throw them up onto people’s porches. If they didn’t land well, I would get off my bike and go pick them up.
I knew I wanted to go to college, and my advisor said I should be an engineer. But I was not practical, so knew that this wasn’t a great choice. I went into mathematics at Iowa State University. My mother and her five siblings all went to ISU, which was rare for women in her generation. She ended up teaching English.
Meeting Each Other
Kay: We were both active in church youth groups at Iowa State. During junior year, there was a trip to Austin, Texas where both groups were invited to go. I signed up for that. We met when it was time to return to Ames, Iowa, after about four days in Texas.
This retreat really challenged my understanding of Christianity. I was a little upset by it all, so a friend and I went for a walk, prior to leaving, to talk about it. We were a bit late for the bus and the only seat left was next to this guy who thought the retreat was the most wonderful thing that ever happened. That was Neil! I don’t know why I was so shy to speak my mind to him, but I didn’t disagree or argue on the way back.
That’s how we initially met. After we returned, Neil asked me to go to the spring dance, which was about a month away or so. I agreed to be his date.
Neil: I remember that on the way home from that youth group retreat in Texas, we had a stop and several people went to see the movie, David and Lisa, which was about a couple of young people with mental health issues. It was a pretty moving story. Kay sat next to me at the theater! That helped.
I asked her to my fraternity's spring dance and I recall there was a tropical theme. I went out and bought some Bermuda shorts and long socks to wear to the dance!
After that, we saw each other on and off over our senior year. We both graduated in 1964.
Kay: Then Neil went off to the Philippines to work in the Peace Corps.
Neil: Around the time of that retreat, I knew I wanted to become a minister. That would require another 3 years of school. I wasn’t excited about that, without a break. I had been looking for a short-term mission, but the Peace Corps came first.
Thank goodness that Kay was willing to write to me, while I was away, even though I wrote about one letter for every four of hers. But she kept writing. Kay was there making money and I was out ‘saving the world’.
Something about the Peace Corps was especially adventurous. I taught modern math to elementary students from 1964 to 1967. I learned their language, Cebuano, pretty well. It is spoken by the people on Cebu, Island. My area was Mindanao, which is the farthest big island in the south.
People from all parts of the Philippines have gone down there to settle. So, the students in the elementary school spoke several different languages from a variety of different groups.
Going to the Philippines, and then to seminary, both gave me a deferment from the military during the Vietnam War.
They gave us a furlough between my second and third year. I came back to the states to see Kay.
Kay: I was in Cincinnati. He didn’t tell me that he was coming to Cincinnati and there I was, entertaining another young man that night, and there was a knock on the door. It was Neil and his sister! I was a little irritated that he didn’t warn me that he was coming.
Neil: She went into her room, and I was left there to chat with her date, Ben!
The fact that I showed up, must’ve indicated my intentions toward her a bit.
When I returned to the Philippines, I started to write more than before, maybe two letters for every four of hers.
What I am proudest of is that, at the end of the two years, I had saved up enough money to pay for my way home, taking the long way. A friend of mine and I went to several places along the way: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Agra to see the Taj Mahal, a couple of places in Israel, Rome and then back home.
In each of those places we stopped, I sent Kay a post card. It was to sort of to make up for my ‘neglect’ in keeping in touch over the previous few years!
I attended Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for three years after that. Because it wasn’t too far from Cincinnati, Kay and I could still see each other. I had a Student Pastor position on weekends and would go work in New Albany, by Louisville. Kay would drive south along the river to come see me.
Neil: It was New Year’s Eve of 1968. We went to a night service in New Albany, then we went back to Louisville, where Kay was staying with friends.
I said, “You know, I would ask you to marry me, but I don’t have a ring.”
Kay: And I asked, “Who needs a ring?”
Neil: The next day we went shopping for rings. We were married that June in Reddick, Illinois, where Kay is from. Kay resigned from her job at Procter & Gamble and switched to a position with a cooperative extension agency in Indianapolis. She worked there for the next two years earning her PHT – “Putting Hubby Through”.
Before I took my first job, we traveled to San Diego for a service project that summer to teach bible school. Then we settled in Ada, Ohio, where I was a minister.
Kay: There was a university there and I became the costume designer for their theater department.
Starting A Family
Kay: While we were in Ada, we learned we weren’t going to have our own children, so we tried taking in a foster child. That didn’t work out very well.
We were told that there was a two-year-old up for adoption if we were interested. We adopted our first daughter, Carita, in 1972. It’s been a blessing for us, for sure!
Neil: We moved to Cleveland in 1976. I took a job as a pastor there at Franklin Circle Christian Church, on the near west side of Cleveland. That was walkable, across the bridge to downtown, and it was kind of an inner-city area. The church had a long history and was known for their social service to the community.
Kay: We adopted another girl, then, who was four years younger than Carita, and that was Minda.
At that time, the church served a free meal every week. I hosted the Thursday night meal. We would sit with the people, as well, and eat the meal with the guests. I also taught English as a Second Language, and was the coordinator for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.
Neil: We lived in Cleveland for 14 years. Then, out of the blue, I got a letter from a church in Sioux Falls, SD, asking if I’d be interested in a position there. I wasn’t. Kay, however, had gone to the library and checked out four books about South Dakota. She was ready to leave Cleveland.
Coming to Janesville
Neil: It took a couple of years, but then, in 1990, I was called to Janesville to work at First Christian Church on Highland Avenue. It recently closed. I took the job and was pastor there until 1997.
Then, I worked a short time for WCLO. Following that, I had the opportunity to work for Allied Automotive Co., which used to be JATCO, a company that moved the cars and trucks from GM. They wanted a chaplain at the company. When I was there, there were probably about 100 drivers and another 100 or so that hauled away the trucks. I hung around, had a presence and tried to encourage people the best I could. I was there for about five years.
After that, I was an on-call chaplain for Agrace Hospice. That was another 5 year position. Then, I became what’s called a Regional Elder and covered a large area of both Wisconsin and Illinois. I would visit various congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
I think Janesville was a good fit for us because it’s small enough to be able to interact with those who are in charge, community leaders and such, and big enough that there are several opportunities to be involved.
Kay: The size of the Janesville community was more comfortable. Carita had already graduated high school and stayed in Cleveland with friends. Minda was in high school and attended Parker High School.
Neil: Minda was the mascot at Parker for a while, when they had the Viking that would run around the football field at half time and such.
Kay: I finally got a job as Director for the Nutrition Education program in Rock County, through UW Extension.
Neil: Meanwhile, I served on the Rock County Board for a time. I think Kay was jealous of my work on the County Board, so she ran for City Council (laughs).
We helped each other with the campaigns. When Kay was running, I
helped deliver flyers.
Kay: I remember collecting signatures for Neil.
I won my election and served on the City Council for two years. I enjoyed my time on the council. At that point, there were only two women, Carol Tidwell and me. We were both in the League of Women Voters. I felt that we were treated fairly by the men.
Neil: Getting involved in Diversity Action Team is close to my heart. I have two adopted daughters of mixed race, so how could I not be involved in DAT? I was a part of its beginning, back in 1998 and joined the board with Leslie Brunsel and others.
I’m also involved in the Green/Rock Audubon Society. I’ve served as treasurer, secretary and president. We aren’t a big group, but we do have some land that needs to be managed.
For quite a few years, I was also a regular participant of the Peace Vigil on Main Street. There were not a lot of us, but it was a consistent thing that we did.
Kay: I got involved in Fourth Ward Neighborhood Action Team. We were doing a newsletter; I wrote it and it was delivered to every home in the Fourth Ward. Before that, we started doing Yard of the Month. We had a group over to talk about becoming a neighborhood organization. We wanted to make the area we live in a place that we liked to live. Dan and Joyce Heussner got involved. They were a part of that original group.
I also helped found and coordinate the garden at Wilson School, along with Billy Bob Grahn and Beth Tallon. It was a summer school project at first, but then the district took the children off the project, and we continued the work. It morphed through different groups being involved, and now the garden is available to the neighborhood.
Voting has always been an important issue, so I became in charge of the League of Women Voters - Voter Services and then president of the local League of Women Voters. I received the league’s Advocacy Award at the State Level.
Sometimes we help those beyond our community when we can. Last year, in 2022, I thought we needed to do something to help the refugees of the war on Ukraine. I told a friend, then they brought on another friend, then another. Next thing you know, a small group of concerned Janesville activists formed a committee, nicknamed “The Ukraine Squad”, and Neil joined us, as well. We began to plan an event called “Music for Ukraine”, which was held in April of 2022 and raised $18,000 in donations! (Music for Ukraine photos were donated by Kim Hoholek Photography)
Then, during the summer, we printed “Peace for Ukraine” t-shirts and sold those at the Janesville Farmer’s Market, putting our total fundraising at over $20,000! The money went to four reputable charity organizations helping the Ukrainian refugees. Janesville really came together to make a difference!
Positive Changes in the Community
Neil: The community, as a whole, is more aware of systemic racism today. In the early 1990s, after the KKK incident in Janesville, our teenaged daughter, Minda, and a friend started a student organization at Parker High School called ASAP – Active Students Against Prejudice. She has continued to live out her life as a welcoming and helping person.
Both of our daughters share our values. I recently ran across a letter to the Gazette that Carita had written about racism in our community. It was written around that same time, in the early '90s.
I feel that our community is finally taking steps to do something about systemic racism. That’s a difference of 30 years.
Kay: I feel like the Fourth Ward is not looked down on as much as it was years ago, as well. Our focus in our work here was always on social issues.
Motivation and Role Models
Kay: My motivation is that I want to make this a place one that I’m happy to call home. Why not?
Back when I was younger, and in 4-H, I looked up to Dorris Hemstreet, who was our Cooperative Extension leader in Kankakee County, Illinois. She was a strong woman, who juggled a lot of things at one time and I always thought that was something to emulate.
Neil: Somebody will ask me to do something and I figure, “Why not?” I get committed and stay committed. We care about “the least, the lost and the lonely”.
My campus minister at Iowa State, Ed Moore, influenced me a lot and I really appreciated his style and presence. He preached the sermon at our wedding! I’d say he was my mentor.
Kay's Advice for Women in Leadership
Kay: If it’s important, then somebody should be doing it!
Surround yourself with people who have similar interests. Like with the Ukraine Squad fundraising… I called people who would be interested and a group, of mostly women, was formed. I’m not a one-person show, it’s important to work with others. I see myself as an “ideas person” and then figure out who else might be interested in those things. Everyone then pitches in to do the work and brings their talents to the table. Don’t be left doing it alone.
Neil: I was thinking about Kay being on the City Council and meeting with the City Manager every week. She would ask another council member to sit in on those meetings with her. I think that’s a smart way of doing things. One-on-one can be challenging.
Kay: You’re not put in direct conflict when you go in as a team. It’s easier to have more minds and more ways of looking at something.
Neil: We love bird watching. When the pelicans were around, we would go bird watching every day to see them. We also enjoy seeing the eagles. We could walk to those locations, since we don’t live too far from the river.
In winter, we were enjoying jigsaw puzzles, though we didn’t get into that this year. We also both have a love of reading.
Kay: I enjoy sewing, though I don’t do that much now.
Neil: When we lived in Cleveland, she made me a leisure suit.
Kay: Though I knew how to do it, sewing that was a big deal!
I was in 4-H from age 10 to 21 and was at the county fair every day in summers. When I was in Foods and Nutrition, I would participate in the county fairs. I did that in all 3 counties we had lived in. In my younger years, I had made a number of dresses and apparel for various projects.
I also did some acting for Janesville Little Theater. There was one play, in particular, that I remember fondly called Grace and Glory, which was performed at JPAC. Elsie Van Tassel directed that one. It was only a two-person play about a woman who has cancer and a young friend who comes to take care of her.
I was also in a play called The Foreigner, which was about a guy who pretended he can’t speak English. That was a good one! And, twice, I was in Steel Magnolias. It’s a fun time when you’re doing theater.
Travel and Favorite Places
Neil: One of Kay’s favorite spots is Hawaii – we stayed for three months in Hilo. I worked as an assistant pastor, about 20 hrs. a week. We didn’t see the other islands, but we used up the time visiting places on the big island. We still have friends there at the church, who Kay talks to on the phone often.
One of my favorite vacation trips was to Costa Rica. Both of us went, but Kay got sick. Still, we saw a lot of Costa Rica and I got to do a lot of birding.
Kay: I have traveled to Alaska twice – I spent the summer in Alaska in 1964, right after their big earthquake. I went with a Methodist group to do some vacation bible school. We helped with the recovery work, kind of indirectly.
Neil: We did several of the Road Scholar trips, then traveled to Alaska together. That was about 5 or 6 years ago. We were about five days in Denali and five days in the Kenai peninsula. We took the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks. We were there around the summer solstice. Temperatures were in the 90s! The day we went to Fairbanks, we took the bus and started walking around. It was so hot just walking! We remember that experience, and how Alaska isn’t always cold.
Secrets to a Lasting Relationship
Kay: We’ll be married 55 years in June.
Be willing to laugh at yourself and share laughter together. Accept each other’s differences. Neil is patient and he’s not demanding. He is supportive when I want to take the lead on something.
Neil: Patience is really important. Kay has had to put up with me in so many ways. Kay has the biggest laugh when I do something dumb or clumsy. She can easily laugh at me. I figure that’s healthy. Be willing to be laughed at. And be willing to operate on different tracks.
A Growing Family
Neil: Now we have two granddaughters and two great granddaughters.
They live nearby, so we get to see them. The great grands are approaching ten. We see them when we visit our daughter. Before my congestive heart failure, I was going over there regularly. We enjoy being a part of their lives, especially now, before they grow up.
Our daughters and granddaughter have been very helpful, at times even acting as our chauffeurs.
Neil: What’s next? The unknown! Whenever I ask any of the doctors “What’s next?” they say, “It depends.”
On my bucket list is to finish visiting some of the national parks in Utah and California, maybe to drive up the coastal highway on the West Coast.
Kay: Before it falls into the ocean!
On my bucket list is to go back to Hawaii.
Neil: There are a lot more Road Scholar trips we might be interested in if we’re feeling up to it. It’s possible!
Neil: See the good in everybody. Encourage the good in everybody and in their potential to bring good into the world. Go easy on judgement…Jesus had something to say about that.
Kay: Don’t be afraid to try something new. I had a poster in my office of a school of fish swimming one way and just one fish swimming the opposite. Have the courage to step apart from the crowd.