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Rita Farris: Sharing her love of music and education
Rita Farris
MONROE - Rita Farris turned being the oldest of several children into a love for teaching.

She turned her pen pal into the love of her life.

And she has combined her passion for music, love for education and desire to stay busy and volunteer to make her life full and meaningful.

Farris grew up in Nabob, a small town just north of Milwaukee and attended grade school there. The family had a small, 60-acre farm and Farris was the oldest of eight children. The farm was mostly cash crops and she helped with the cucumbers, strawberries and many other garden products. They would drive the cucumbers to the pickle grading station, sometimes taking 20 bags in the heart of the season and earning just 3 cents a pound.

That money was important to her, however, because it was the reason she was able to take music lessons. It was something Farris' mother always wanted for the children and in second grade, she began taking piano from a nun 7 miles from home. She continued lessons through high school.

Early on, Farris helped in the kitchen. It was natural for her to be a leader to her siblings, encouraging them to get work done by making it into a game. It was the teacher in her, she said, that came out early on.

Farris was an involved student at Slinger High School and graduated as the valedictorian. She said she very much enjoyed her business classes and working with people and decided to go to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater after graduation.

"When I started, I just couldn't decide between business and music," she said. She ended up earning a major in business with a minor in music. "I thought I'd figure it out later, but I never really did figure it out."

Farris and her husband Tom had been pen pals while Farris was in college. Tom was serving in the Air Force and had access to a plane, and promised to finally meet up with her. But, something always came up and the two never connected. Farris' friends and family told her to forget about him, but they kept writing. Three years later, the meeting did happen. (Unbeknownst to the other, they both saved the letters and eventually, they were put in a book for the two to enjoy reading together on their anniversaries.)

She landed her first teaching job at Fennimore High School before landing a job teaching in Juda. Tom was going back to school in Platteville at the time and the location was what drew her there.

Farris enjoyed teaching, and as the senior class advisor served as a chaperone when nine girls lost their lives in a plane accident in New Orleans on their senior class trip. It was the late 1960s, and Farris found her own way to grieve and heal by putting together all of the memorabilia. She made it her mission to create a book to share with families and friends. A scholarship fund was also developed with Farris as the representative for it. She often speaks and shares about what happened during that tragic time. Many of the mementos are now housed at the community center, which is very special for her.

Tom also went to school for teaching and began working at the middle school while Farris then stayed home with their growing family. But she always taught business classes two nights a week at Black Hawk Technical College until just a few years ago.

"I absolutely loved teaching," she said. "It all just fell into place."

Farris would often play the piano for her children while they danced, but it wasn't until her youngest son, Richard, showed interest in piano that she began giving him lessons. A year later, another son asked for lessons and eventually, all of her children were getting lessons from Mom.

"There was always music in the house," she said. "I loved it."

Each child would find a spot before or after school and enjoy their special time alongside their mother. Once all of the children were in school, others heard about the Farris children and a few people asked if she would give their children lessons as well.

What began with a few neighbors and friends has turned into a way for Farris to share her passion in her home, and she's still teaching about 60 students each week of all ages.

"They learn to trust you," Farris said of her students. "What's more valuable than the trust a child has with their teacher?"

They also have recitals at the Monroe Arts Center and a Green County Piano Teachers Group, of which she is a longtime member, has a recital in Monticello.

Over the years, all of Farris' children held paper routes. She would sometimes substitute for them and when her youngest son left for college, she decided to take his route over completely. Farris kept the route for 25 years, delivering the Wisconsin State Journal and getting her exercise in before most people got out of bed. She went through two bikes, enjoying the fresh air of the morning, but the icy walk ways got to be a bit much and she finally gave it up.

"Most people never knew it was me delivering their paper," she said. "I'm so glad I did it."

In 1999, Farris was visiting her sister in a town where city-wide garage sales were held and she suggested that Monroe do the same. Since then, she has organized the event with help from Tom. The event has evolved and changed over the years, with lots of time and preparation spent on planning and mapping.

She is also a member of St. Victor's and is the funeral lunch coordinator for the church - a big, behind-the-scenes job she said she truly enjoys: She knows the importance of having a place to gather and have a meal after the loss of a loved one.

Farris is a member of Catholic Daughters of the Americas, another important part of her life, and she's in charge of the school supply drive. The bags of supplies have jumped from last year's 212 to this year's 434 - a true testament to how much the service is needed in Green County.

"I think volunteerism is what makes things happen," Farris said. "There are a lot of good, faithful volunteers - you just have to find them."

Farris loves to spend time with her family and is proud that two of her children are music teachers and most are still involved with music and sharing it in different ways. She especially enjoys her 18 grandchildren and loves to sew, quilt, bake and take on whatever may come her way.

She doesn't consider herself retired and has no plans of that in mind. As long as she's able and enjoying it, Farris said, she will continue teaching piano in her home to anyone who might be interested in learning to play.

"There's so many interesting things to do, the days just aren't long enough," Farris said. "I love to be busy. It makes you get more done."