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Rita Stubits, 89, popular piano teacher


Rita Stubits

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Updated: February 3, 2013 6:17AM

Dear Mrs. Stubits,

It has been more years than I can remember that I sat next to you while you tried to teach me piano.

You were kind and patient and very encouraging. I think of those days now and then — such a great memory. I always liked your pink lipstick.

I just wanted to let you know I really appreciated all your time and energy and to say “thank you” even though it was 40 years ago! I still have the music you gave me. Every now and then I sit and play at my mom’s house. Thank you — you were a wonderful teacher.

Warmest regards,

Loretta Caravette

Some adults remember childhood music lessons as their bleakest hours.

But piano teacher Rita Stubits had a joyful patience that stretched and stretched and never seemed to snap.

Her old students often thanked her for making their lessons fun. Loretta Caravette was typical. She wrote to her former teacher just before Thanksgiving, to tell Mrs. Stubits she had given her memories she loved to linger over.

That patience and warmth was also a gift to her seven children, and her husband, former Sun-Times sportswriter and editor Emil R. Stubits. It infused their home with love and acceptance.

Though they lived in a modest house, “I always felt we had so much,” said their daughter, Liz.

They had an organ and two pianos, one upstairs and one downstairs. Mrs. Stubits loved to tickle the ivories. All it took was a request from her husband: “Let’s sing. Would you play something, Rita?’’

The family had rousing Christmas sing-alongs. They used a reel-to-reel tape recorder to rehearse their harmonies on “Yellow Submarine” for the St. Ferdinand’s parish talent night.

Mrs. Stubits adored the song, “Indian Love Call.” Decades before it became a punchline in the 1996 movie, “Mars Attacks” (when Slim Whitman yodeled it, the aliens died), it was a trilling little classic of operetta. Many homes with “hi-fis” had the 1936 Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald version, which Mrs. Stubits never tired of.

Still, she wasn’t stuck in the past. When some 1970s parents warily considered whether “Jesus Christ Superstar” was disrespectful, Mrs. Stubits was already belting out the rock opera’s tunes at her home in the 6100 block of West Fletcher. She bought Dionne Warwick’s “Message to Michael” for her son, Michael. The family sang the songs from “Hair” and West Side Story.” She also loved Mary Martin and “The Sound of Music.”

A pot of something tasty was usually simmering on her stove — beef stew, American chop suey, or chicken paprika with sour cream and dumplings.

She made holidays special. For Christmas, “We would always make Toll House cookies,” said another daughter, Therese. “She’d say, ‘We’ve got all our ingredients!’ Or, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to carve the pumpkin,’ or, ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to put the tree up.’ We’d be like, ‘OK, Mom!’ ’’

She and Mr. Stubits — who died in 1981 — took the kids on family vacations in their green Volkswagen mini-bus. They hit Expo ’67 — the Montreal World’s Fair — as well as Washington, D.C.; the Wisconsin Dells, Springfield, and camping trips.

Mrs. Stubits, 89, died Saturday at St. Joseph Hospital.

She grew up in the West Side neighborhood around Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) parish. Her father died of a brain hemorrhage when she was 11. Her mother later contracted TB, and had to recuperate in the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium that used to be at Bryn Mawr and Pulaski. She looked out for her younger brother, George. “He used to say that Mom always took care of him,” Liz Stubits said.

Young Rita learned the piano, and played organ at masses at OLA from her late teens to her early 20s, Therese Stubits said.

She attended Immaculata High School and became director of the OLA choir. That’s where she met her future husband. “She was the choir director; he was a tenor, and the rest is history,” Therese said. They married and moved to the Northwest Side.

But she was pinioned to her chair on the tragic day in 1958 when a deadly fire at Our Lady of the Angels killed 92 children and three nuns. “I can remember her, when I was a little girl, listening to the radio, and I remember her saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ finding out about all these poor children who died,” Therese said.

Her children marvel at how easily she seemed to round them up and take them all downtown to the Walnut Room at Christmas. They went to the Will Rogers movie theater on Belmont Avenue to see 1970s gems like “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist” and “All the President’s Men.”

Mrs. Stubits taught music at St. Ferdinand School for 16 years, until she retired at 62. She was also a longtime choir member at St. Ferdinand’s.

After the death of her husband, she remained active. She bowled, line-danced, played cards, and traveled. Mrs. Stubits took one of the first flights out of the United States after the 9/11 tragedy to visit Poland and see the birthplace of Chopin. “She was in her late 70s when she did that,” Liz said.

In addition to Liz, Michael and Therese, Mrs. Stubits is survived by her daughters, Mary Rita Clifton, Bernadette O’Connor and Julianna Plucinski; her son, William; eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Visitation is 2 to 8 p.m. Friday at St. Mary’s Home, 2325 N. Lakewood. A funeral mass is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary’s Home.

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