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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Paula DeRubeis

Story sponsored by Kathy and Bill Schendt


Interview by Teresa Nguyen

April 2024

Retired Educator - School District of Janesville

YWCA Woman of Distinction Award Recipient

Former President and Active Member of AAUW

Trinity Episcopal Church Volunteer Leader

Former Senior Warden at Trinity Episcopal Church

Meal Organizer and Cook for G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter

Community Activist


The Early Years


My father, Don, was from Freeport, Illinois. He worked for the United States Geological Survey. My mother, Mary Lou, was nicknamed “Slim” because she was 5’7” and 118 lbs. The nickname was from a Lauren Bacall movie, where actor Humphrey Bogart called her “Slim”.


My mother was from Waupun and the two met in Evanston when my dad was working on a master’s degree in Geology and my mom was going to school to become an X-ray Technician. They had met in September and were married by December of that year! They immediately moved to California.

Little Paula and Parents

I was born in Sacramento, California. I’m the oldest of three. My brother, Dan, is three years younger and my sister, Jane, is six years younger. I was born with a blind left eye, which they didn’t discover until I was about seven years old, when I took a test and couldn’t see the chart. My parents hadn’t really noticed it. But in one of my pictures from when I was young, you can actually see that my eye is wandering.


We only stayed in California for two years, first in Sacramento, then in Santa Barbara. My dad’s employer wanted to move him to Venezuela, but my mom said, “No.” So, we moved back to the Chicago area, living four years in Skokie. Eventually, we rented a house in Lake Geneva for six months until we moved into our home in Williams Bay.


At that time, I was in kindergarten, my sister was a new baby and my brother was just three. I grew up in Williams Bay and attended school, a K-12 school district all in one building.


Childhood Memories


We played outside a lot, ran around with neighborhood friends and we’d go exploring in the woods. We would sled on the nearby hill in winters all the time and we loved hop scotch and kickball.

Paula (left) with brother Dan and sister Jane

Around age ten or so I kind of became the “keeper of the neighborhood kids” and would round them up. We would put on shows and make the parents come and watch us sing and dance and do tricks and things.


My parents guided me and were my biggest cheerleaders.


In school I had a reputation of being a tattletale and I talked too much. I was always told to slow down and that my work was messy. It makes me wonder if I had ADHD undiagnosed, but I don’t know. I was smart, but couldn’t be still. When I was in first grade, I decided that I was going to grow up and be a teacher.


My first-grade teacher was right out of the frying pan, barely done with her degree! My third and fourth grade teacher, Phillis Johnson, who I admired, moved up to 7th and 8th and was my teacher yet again! We nicknamed her PJ, or PJ The Grammar Police. We got her expertise for four years. I’m still in touch with a lot of friends from my school days.


Every morning, there would be something on the blackboard that we had to memorize. I still know the Preamble to the Constitution, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and all kinds of stuff from those routine assignments!


Our teachers were awesome. With the population increase, they had to keep building on to our school over time.


A National Turning Point


When I was in 7th grade, I always walked home for lunch, which was just a few blocks away – uphill one way and downhill the other. My mother would always be watching soap operas on TV. One day, I got home around 11:30 and my mother was sitting in front of the TV set and her usual show wasn’t on. She had told me that President Kennedy had been shot. She didn’t have lunch for me, but was just glued to the TV.

That upset us a great deal.


We were the Baby Boomers. Our classmates were like our sisters and brothers. We got to know them so well, being in a small community and in the same school all those years. I could never have dated one of the guys in my class because they were like my brothers!


High School Years


I was not into sports, because of my blind left eye, so couldn’t do anything that involved a ball or depth perception.


So, I was active in Future Teachers of America, sang in the chorus, which I loved, and I was on the yearbook staff. I was also on the National Honor Society and secretary of my class. My brother also sang and my sister was a pianist and went on to obtain multiple degrees in Piano Performance. She’s quite accomplished!


I worked as a dishwasher on weekends at the Methodist Church, though it wasn’t our church. It was only down the road from us. My main source of income, however, was from babysitting. I was “Babysitter Extraordinaire” and was sought after!


I babysat for a lot of wealthy families and smart people, because of the nearby Yerkes Observatory, even some famous people and well-known, high-profile people. Sometimes, the husbands took the train every day from Williams Bay to Chicago to work at the Chicago Board of Trade. I’d babysit for them, too. In one family, the grandfather was a real big deal in the Mafia. There’s an article written about him. But I didn’t know anything about that at the time, as I was just the babysitter.


I think I was way more upset when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated than when JFK was killed. I was 17 at the time and was becoming more aware of politics and the turmoil in the nation. That day, I had been the first one out of bed before school and turned on the radio. Then I heard the news….and I just lost it. That upset me even more than Martin Luther King Jr.. I guess that was because we were a little oblivious to what was going on with Civil Rights, being in a very small, white town.


Higher Education


I knew I wanted to study education. I started with the goal of teaching English, but ended up studying Elementary Education at the University of Wisconsin - Lacrosse.


Paula and Nancy

I went to college with my best friend, Nancy, and we were roommates all four years! That doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked out well for us. We had stayed in touch through the years. I lost her when she was only 40. She died from pancreatic cancer.


During college, we didn’t watch a lot of the news. We were either busy with classes or partying. But, the tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio happened when I was a freshman in college, and I remember attending a vigil. That was around the time that Pete Seger came to our campus and sang. It felt like the highlight of my life!


After my junior year, I started dating Gene. But he wouldn’t marry me until I graduated.


Meeting Gene


I always called Gene by his nickname, “Tuna”, which is a mob reference to Anthony Accardo, who was called “Big Tuna”. He got that name in college, because he came from an Italian community up on the northern Wisconsin border. He was Tuna to all who loved him.

Tuna and Paula

So, the story goes…


I didn’t drive until I was 33, because of my bad eye. During college I relied on people to give me rides and often took the busses and such. My roommate, Nancy, got a ‘57 Chevy, so we ran around in that a lot.


The day my brother graduated from high school, I attended my brother’s party and then had been invited to two of his friends’ parties. My dad gave me a ride to the first party. I knew I could get a ride from someone else to the second & third parties.


At the first party, I ran into Tuna and his friend Doug. Tuna was staying with Doug at the time. Tuna had been my teacher at Williams Bay but was only there a few years before taking a job in Janesville. Tuna and Doug were both teachers at Craig High School at the time.


Well, suddenly, Doug, the Spanish teacher, asked me out! He added that he was going fishing for a couple of weeks in Canada and wondered if I would want to go out when he came back. I said, “Sure, why not?”


The two of them gave me a ride to the third party. At some point during the night, Tuna had decided that he would walk me home after the party, which was only about three blocks away.


He then asked me to go out on the upcoming Saturday night. I said, “Sure.”

Tuna and Paula

It was about 1 am, and our house was big, so you couldn’t see everything from the kitchen window. Well, my mom was still up. I came in and said, “You’ll never guess who just walked me home.”


And she replied, “Mr. DeRubeis.”


There was NO WAY she could have seen us walking up! So, I wondered if someone had called her. I never did find out how she knew!


When I woke the next morning, I thought perhaps Tuna wouldn’t remember asking me out. But he called me and we went out before his friend Doug came back. It was funny, though, because I tried to get rid of Tuna all summer thinking, “How can I go out with a guy who’s 32, who wears polyester pants and wears his hair slicked back like that?” But he was pretty darn cute.

Tuna and Paula DeRubeis wedding day with Paula's parents

Settling Down


I returned to school and, for a year and a half, we kept in touch, wrote letters and called. We got engaged in August. I graduated on December 14th, 1973 and I had to student teach. I came home and neither of us had a penny to our name.


We decided to elope on Groundhog Day in 1974. My mom adored him. My dad didn’t show his feelings, but I don’t think he was crazy about our wedding plan. He and Tuna were as different as night and day, but they were always cordial.


Tuna’s brother and the brother’s fiancé stood up for us. We then told my parents, went out for lunch, went and bought a cocker spaniel we named Charlie Brown, then went to the high school band concert! That was our wedding day.


We moved into the house he lived in, Doug’s family’s home, in a caretaker’s house on their huge estate in Delavan. We lived there the first four years. Tuna would commute back and forth to Janesville to teach at Craig.


I had Dan 13 months after we were married and then had Mike 20 months later.  So, there I was with two little ones and no car, living in the boondocks.

Paula with Dan and Mike

In spite of that, I belonged to the Junior Women’s Club. It was a rather normal service club, nothing hoity toity.


Coming to Janesville


We moved to Janesville in July of 1978. We lived with my aunt for six weeks and I had my daughter Catharine when I lived with my aunt. Then I lived with his parents up north while we waited to be able to move into our house. We had put in a bid in April, but had to wait for a VA loan. Tuna had served during the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and had been stationed out in Seattle.


After about a year here, Tuna was still teaching and bartending. I went away to a Ladies’ Church Camp. I had set Tuna up with babysitters and all. When I returned, he said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I didn’t spend any money on babysitters. The bad news is I lost my job bartending.” They had new ownership and switched everyone out. I told him that I should get a job.


So, I started waitressing at night. That was good because Tuna got to spend more time with the children. It was a restaurant attached to The Best Western. The year Catharine went to kindergarten, I took the job as day bartender, which I loved.


The next summer, Tuna said I should learn to drive so that I could work as a substitute teacher. I called Rock Valley Driving School to see if they could send someone out to determine if I was a lost cause or if there was hope. A guy came out and took me driving. He said I was way better than a lot of the students he taught!


Well, during the week before my driving test on the following Monday, a half-time kindergarten position opened up and George Mckilligin had recommended me. He’s one of the finest people I know. He was the head of elementary education at the ESC and was also a deacon in our church, so he knew me.

The DeRubeis Family

Teaching Career


I got that call on Wednesday, was hired that Friday and was working Monday morning, fixing up my room, not really knowing what I was getting into. I’d been out of college since 1973. This was in 1984, so I had been out of school for eleven years already! Then, Tuna picked me up at 11 and I went and took my driver’s test! And I passed.


The woman I taught with walked into our room and hardly said hello, then said, “I don’t ‘team. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.” One of my other dear friends, Nancy Holt, taught kindergarten at Adams and showered me with teaching items and ideas and passed things along to me. She was my lifesaver and so good to me.


As soon as I started teaching, I went back to school for my Master’s Degree and earned that by age 42.

Paula with her master's degree

I was at Jackson for two years and transferred to Van Buren. Annette Grover was a fellow teacher who really mentored me. In my fourth year I traveled between the two schools. That summer I got a pink slip, but we got them every year, and then we’d get rehired.


I had wanted to go to Monroe, but I ended up at Harrison in 1989. I later found out later that the principal had wanted me to have his grandchildren! But they didn’t get there until years after I had been hired.


Kindergarten is all I ever taught and I loved it! It was a dream job. It was always what I had wanted to do and at that age they’re so fun. I felt like I was making a difference, but also that I was doing it the way it should be done. They had time for playing. More and more they’re shoving curriculum down their throats and are lacking in play time.

Mrs. DeRubeis' Class

They remember the fun times, too, like singing in the shows and such. We had music time where I played records, then tapes, then CDs. It’s a good thing we weren’t in the pod and had four walls with all the noise we were making!


Kindergarten kids are so funny. I’d only believe half of what they’d say about the crazy things that went on at home.


I was at Harrison for 20 years until I retired. There were families where I had all four of their kids. I’m still friends with so many of my former students. I see them getting married and having babies. It’s fun to see them grow up.


During my career, I was involved with the JEA (Janesville Education Association) and I picketed for teacher’s rights, teachers’ salaries, standing up for getting the arts available for kindergarten and that sort of thing.


The retired teachers and I have lunch about once a month.


Mrs. DeRubeis and students

Advice on Parenting from a Beloved Kindergarten Teacher


1. Put down your phone.

2. Be involved in your child’s life.

3. Read to your child every single day. I could always tell which children were not read to. It’s sad.

4. Give your children affirmations ALL the time.

5. I have great affection for the “naughty child”, because I had been that child. If you have to say something bad to them, say it in a positive way. There are ways to correct a child’s behavior without yelling, “No! Stop it!”.

6. Engage your child all the time and be a positive role model. Teach them responsibility.

7. Don’t use TV, movies and video games as a babysitter. I know it’s easy. But, limit that screen time.

8. Allow your child to explore and experiment. Get your hands dirty and have fun with your kids. I had a child at kindergarten orientation and discovered he didn’t know how to use a pair of scissors. When I asked the child if he practiced at home, he said, “No, my mom says they’re too dangerous.” Don’t be overprotective.

9. Encourage physical activity.

10. Get outside, explore and connect with nature and play under the sun!


Community Involvement


The reason I retired at 57 was that it wouldn’t have paid me much to stay on. We went to a seminar in Madison to learn about retirement options. They were offering only $10 a month more.


My daughter-in-law was expecting my first biological grandchild and so for the first summer of retirement, I practically lived in Madison taking care of my granddaughter. She’s gorgeous!


I’m really active at Trinity Episcopal Church, I’m the head of the alter guild and sang in the choir for a long time. I can’t do that now since I had my stroke and it damaged my voice. My range is about 6 notes on a good day. I used to be a decent alto.


I also love to cook and do a lot of cooking for events in the kitchen there. I’ve been on the vestry and served as Senior Warden, which is the head of the vestry, and did that all during COVID.

Tuna and Paula (left) enjoying time with friends

I’ve been involved with AAUW (American Association of University Women) since 1980. I was head of the book sale for four years and served as president for four years.


One of my favorite things to do is to cook at the G.I.F.T.S. Men’s Shelter. Our church takes four weeks a year and I am in charge of all the breakfasts. I love cooking either breakfast or dinner for them. I love those guys.


I feel like they need someone in charge of the pantry. As I get stronger, I hope by summer I can go do a big clean-out at the shelter.


When Tuna retired, he was the Junior Warden at church. He was in charge of all the grounds, landscaping and such. He also joined Golden Kiwanis. But he wasn’t a golfer. He had his friends, like Sam Loizzo and the gang, but we didn’t do a lot of couple’s things.


He really was my biggest cheerleader. He wouldn’t marry me until I got my college degree, he encouraged me to drive, he encouraged me to get my master’s degree. I also traveled a lot with him, but I traveled a lot without him, too.

Paula’s Travels


The first time I traveled alone was when I went to see my sister in England in Oxford. Both she and her husband have music degrees and have professional jobs in music. She sent me on all kinds of side trips by myself, even Paris! We went to Wales together, too, which was great.


When I was gone on that trip, I found out that a letter I wrote to Time Magazine was published. It was about mothers and parents who gave up everything for their daughters to have lavish weddings. So, they published it!


Tuna and his family, being Italian, were really into making homemade salami. His ancestors were from Italy and he made a pen pal in Italy named Claudia, who invited us to come to her and her husband’s villa one year over spring break. It was the one spring break that didn’t fall during Holy Week. I’m always so busy during Holy Week! So, we flew there and spent a week. They took us to wineries and monasteries and she cooked for us every night! It was wonderful.


I took a lot of solo trips to see my old friend Nancy, who lived in South Carolina.


Tuna and I also took many trips together to see Tuna’s brother in Seattle.


I’ve traveled out East and loved Washington DC. Gettysburg was really impactful.


About every three or five years, my college roommates and I take a trip somewhere cool in the states together. I have a photo album that I can hardly close. I’m the keeper of the memories. We still get together regularly!


Paula (right front swing) with college friends

Hobbies


I like to read and I like to make creative cards. I am making some for a silent auction. I’m more a crafter than an artist. Some of the cards are silly. I also sell them.





I like to crochet and to knit and still love to play bridge.


When I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.


I wrote every day during COVID, journaled and saved funny memes. I have a scrapbook filled. That way, if anyone wants to know what went on during the pandemic, they’ll have this record.


I’ve also always thought it would be fun to write a children’s book. Maybe someday.


Losing Tuna


It started with my dad, really. He ended up here after my mother died. He was in an apartment and getting dementia. It was getting worse and worse.


Meanwhile, my dad and I had a trip to California planned. We drove out there and my dad couldn’t remember any of the places we’d been to, things he should have known.

Paula with her dad and siblings

There were other signs, like I told him where I was going when I had planned to attend a musical in Chicago. And as I was getting ready, he asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “I told you, Dad.” But he didn’t remember.


Prior to my father’s death, the first sign that something was wrong with Tuna happened. I had gone whitewater rafting with my kids. When I came home from that trip and walked into the house, the place smelled terrible. Tuna had messes everywhere in the house. He wasn’t taking showers. I knew something was quite wrong.


In 2013, Tuna had suffered a grand mal seizure out of the blue, something he’d never experienced before. They took him to the hospital and put him in a coma. The next day they brought him out of it and he seemed okay. He was there 11 days, but was really ready to come home.


Then, Dad passed away in 2015. That June I had my stroke.


Tuna and granddaughter

Tuna had been operated on twice for bladder cancer. He was not coping well with everything. I knew I couldn’t take him home after that. He had an exam and was told he had vascular dementia, which made him incapable of making a new memory. That was during the 2016 Olympics. I remember visiting him and seeing it on the TV. After that, I brought him home, but I couldn’t leave him home for very long.


In 2018, I decided that we had to sell our house. He was a pack rat and wouldn’t throw anything away.


I picked my new place out with my daughter-in-law. It was perfect for us. We moved that September. Tuna had two heart attacks and so many weird things wrong with him. He had a history of blood clots and was on blood thinner.


I had to hide the medication because he always thought he needed a pill and he wouldn’t remember when he had taken them. Otherwise, he would accidentally take too many.


During COVID, we had help coming to the house. But they knew he needed more and we arranged for Hospice to come in. They came on Sunday and interviewed the whole family and started on Monday. They were amazed that I had been taking care of him all that time.


That week his health declined. Hospice brought people to be there all the time. He basically stayed in his chair. They were planning to take him to Agrace in Madison to a Pain Management Center.


So, the ambulance came and two guys helped to get him out of the chair. He’s a big guy and he was on medications and was acting wild. So, they called for backup. It took four men to get him on the gurney. I walked out to the second ambulance to get the address so I could follow.


All of a sudden, they were getting excited, calling the other paramedics. He was going into AFib (atrial fibrillation) and he died right there in the driveway on the gurney. They asked me if I wanted to resuscitate him, but I said, “No, he has a DNR (do not resuscitate) bracelet.” The Hospice nurse had brought that bracelet to him 10 minutes before the paramedics had arrived! And that was it.


Mike and Michelle had just been there. They couldn’t believe it because they’d just seen him.


He died August 7th, 2020, during COVID, so we had to wait a whole year to hold his funeral in August of 2021.


The perfect treats at Tuna's funeral

Tuna and Paula's children made salami for their dad's funeral
Tuna's ashes are in his favorite pasta tin

We had an amazing funeral, so well attended. It was a 100% Italian funeral, the kids even made homemade salami, as their dad would have loved. We sang, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”. He loved that one.


I miss him like crazy now. This year, February 2nd, we would have celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary.


Activism and Advice


Just before COVID, I attended the Women’s March at the capitol with my daughter. One of our missions with the AAUW is to empower women. I was also glad to participate in presenting a workshop for middle school girls in Whitewater to help these young women learn about STEM careers.


In other activism, I attended a peace vigil at First Congregational after the George Floyd incident.


I also boycott certain corporations that don’t take care of their employees.


Don’t be quiet if there is an injustice. And don’t be afraid. I’ve been outspoken my whole life. And I’m sure some people don’t want to hear what I have to say.

A quote hanging in Paula's home

But I’ve also learned to not engage with idiots on social media. People have on blinders and have their heads in the sand, and they’re never going to change their minds no matter what a particular “leader” says or does.


Sometimes it’s better to just not engage, especially with friends who have very different political viewpoints, at least for the sake of the friendship.


I do worry about our country and what kind of environment we’re leaving for our kids and grandkids. This weather upsets me. My sedum should not be out in February! What will these changes do for our plant life and the pollinators?


Role Models


Some of my role models were George Mckilligin, who I mentioned earlier, and Wayne Smith, who was a priest at our church when we moved here. He had an uncanny ability for making you think you could do things you didn’t think you could do. When he believed in you and you actually accomplished something big, you realized he was right.


Paula's father was her encourager

And my husband and my dad were both my great encouragers. My father said that I was the only person he knew who was doing exactly what they wanted to do and it made them happy.


Outlook on Janesville


I’m really glad to see the Woodman’s Center come to fruition, and I love the Town Square. I do all kinds of stuff downtown. And I’m very happy about the Children’s Museum coming. We have a great library, too. I have felt badly that the kids don’t have a lot to do here. It’s the teens who need activities and things to do.


Yet, I think the downtown is so revitalized. When we first moved here, the mall was pretty new and the downtown still kind of existed with Anderson’s, Sears and Bostwicks. Then, one by one, they all left. Now, there are so many little kids’ shops, and there is Adorn, which is a great boutique and others! And I enjoy the Bodacious Shops.


Family


My children, Dan and Mike and Catharine, are all in their 40s. Dan is a web designer and runs online safety equipment. Mike is a Physical Education teacher at Fort Atkinson High School, and Catharine has a “big shot” position at UW in Human Resources.



I have two grandchildren in Dan’s family and two in Mike’s family.


My daughter is my best friend. We have never had a fight in 45 years! I often go to Madison and she comes down here all the time. And we love to travel together. She’s an adventure junkie and travels everywhere.



My daughter has been an example and has encouraged me to seek new adventures, so I’ve also bungie jumped, parachuted out of an airplane and I’ve gone ziplining!


Last summer, Catharine and I went on a cruise to Iceland and Nova Scotia. Our next trip is a cruise to Barcellona, France, Italy and Croatia in early 2025.


Unexpected Change, New Determination


I’ll be having a double mastectomy on April 24th. In early March of 2024, I had my yearly mammogram and they called me back and wanted to redo it. They did a second mammogram and then an ultrasound. The following week I had a biopsy.


They told me I had invasive carcinoma in two places. It wasn’t ductal, it was lobular, so difficult to detect, but already invasive. But they caught it! It’s stage 1, so that’s good. I’m going for a double, and my kids and the doctor agree on that decision. I’m not going to mess around! It will give me peace of mind.

Still smiling and surrounded by favorite paintings - some by local artist, Connie Glowacki

I wasn’t worried, because it didn’t surprise me in the least with my family history. My aunt died of breast cancer at age 56. I’m surprised I dodged this bullet as long as I did. I had lost my precious cousin last year. Hers started with breast cancer. She was only 60. I had visited her in Portland and she died about six weeks later. It was just so sad.


My doctor, the surgeon I went to see, was wonderful. She is so kind and authentic.


I’ll find out what else I’ll have to do for treatments after the surgery, when I see the oncologist. I was sent to genetic testing and did not have the BRCA gene.


I told my children right away. My daughter is in Madison, one son is in Janesville and one in Waunakee. They’re all so wonderful. And their wives are wonderful. They’ll be there for me. I’ll be very limited after the surgery. I won’t be able to drive for a while or lift things. I’ll have my kids and also a friend who will come and stay with me to help. I am well taken care of.


I’m currently having some remodeling done, so the house is kind of a mess and the carpeting is torn up. Then this health issue happened right in the middle of all of that. My son, Dan, is going to help me make a sound-proof fort for the cat so she’s not freaked out with the noise of the remodeling.



I’m a fighter, so I’m planning to beat this! I just got a note from a friend who had breast cancer and gave me a hopeful message. It said, “Welcome to the club. Believe in miracles.” She had gone through it and is doing well. So many people have had breast cancer.


I hope every woman has their mammogram in a timely manner! It could save your life.


I have to be better by June, because I’m going on a trip with my sister and cousin to Connecticut!


Always have motivation. One should always have something to look forward to.

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