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Tuesday September 20, 2011 Edition
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Sharing Life Lessons with Rita Charlebois Booska
“You must do the thing you think you can’t do”

photo provided

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Tuesday September 20, 2011

By Cookie Steponaitis

    For Rita Charlebois Booska, it is simply all about family. There is no escaping it, and she doesn’t want to. Each child, sibling, grandchild and great grandchild is a blessing and another legacy to be taught, cherished and celebrated. Born into a family of eleven children in 1924, Rita Charlebois Booska is a testimonial to the work ethic, self-determination and thriftiness of what many have termed the “Greatest Generation.”

    Rita’s parents were married and came to the United States from Ontario, Canada in 1919. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 1944, eleven children joined the family. Both bilingual, Rita and her siblings grew up with two worlds and two languages. While English was the language at school and Rita herself attended schools in Addison and Vergennes, the language of the family and at home on the farm was French. Seeped in both was the family tradition of sharing, faith, and work. “We all had our duties on the farm,” shared Rita. “We had twenty-four cows on the farm in Addison and we milked them day and night by hand. My parents were very proud to be the first Charlebois family in the area and over the years I have had many people tell me that our home was the one people always wanted to come to, because we had fun and we had music.”

    While Rita happily shares memories of taking the horse and buggy on Route 22A which was a gravel road to Broughton’s Store in Bridport, she also remembers everyone eating dinner together each night and kneeling down as  a family to say rosary. “My parents’ friends Joe and Rose used to come visit the house a lot, “ reminisced Rita, “ and they would bring their fiddle and a Hawaiian guitar. We had a piano and my sisters Anita and Rena would play and we would all sing. However, that was after we finished saying the rosary, so Joe and Rose would kneel down with us and say them too.” It was at one of these musical gatherings that Rita met the man she later married. While her dad played the violin and Rita accompanied him on the guitar, Rita was introduced to Lawrence Booska whom she married on October 12, 1942 at St. Bernadette’s Church in Bridport.

     “Those were some tough times,” Rita shared. “Lawrence was in the Army but was attached to the Air Force as a medic; serving in the 762nd Signal Air Warning Company, and he was stationed first in Blackstone, Virginia. I went to be with him and lived and worked thirty miles away from the base. I saw him on weekends. Also, he was transferred to Tampa, Florida and as his wife I went. When he was sent to the Aleutian Islands in September 1943, I came home and stayed with my parents. Our daughter Yvette was two years old when her father returned from his duty with the rank of a T5, to a child he had never met or seen. While those years were rough, the decisions we made were always based on our family. Our son Eugene was born in December of 1946 and we built our home in New Haven in 1947 where I still live today.”

    Driven by a strong work ethic, both Rita and Lawrence set and achieved huge goals in their life and marriage that were always revolving around the concept of family and the lessons learned from the Great Depression years where as Rita so calmly expressed, “ Everybody was in the same boat. No one had much and no one had money. You worked as a family and you survived as a family, but at the same time, you always tried to give a helping hand to a neighbor of a friend in need.”

    While generations remember Lawrence and the New Haven Road Commissioner(24 yrs) and for his business L.R Booska Corporation consisting of the gravel pit and the landfill,  just as many remember Rita for over thirty years of owning and operating Booska’s Beauty Shoppe and for establishing a Vermont treasure in the A& W Drive In located south of Middlebury. “I always loved people,” commented Rita and I really wanted to get the franchise for the new A& W Rootbear that was out of California. Lawrence listened to me talk about it for quite a while and finally told me, ‘IF you can borrow the money, go for it.’ “ I’m not sure he was prepared for me to go down that day to the National Bank of Brandon and secure the loan, but we were off and running.

    Building the A& W in the fall of 1957, the Booska family spent many a night having dinner at the stand and working in different aspects of the business. When they opened the doors officially for business on April 15, 1958, it was quickly apparent that it was a hit. One chef finally poked his head out of the kitchen and asked Rita quite bluntly “Where in the hell are they all coming from.” Surrounded by cars, people and great food, the A& W was a hot spot for people to gather, eat, and even play. Rita was especially proud of the generous serving she and Lawrence were known for serving. Car hops were more like family than employees and Rita hears from many to this day. While the Booska’s sold the business in 1964, Rita still remembers those years fondly and can prepare each recipe on demand for those with a hankering for those generous servings and famed Hoola hoop parties out front.

    After selling the A&W, Rita went to Beauty School and opened her own Beauty Shoppe in 1968. Rita was able to juggle full time family and helped answering the phones and radio for the L.R. Booska Corporation. Yet, all the while, there was still a goal, a dream and a desire unfulfilled. “When I was a little girl, maybe about seven, “remarked Rita. “ I knew I wanted to be a nurse.” When Lawrence passed away in 1990 after forty-eight years of marriage, Rita began yet another transition in her life and enrolled at the Community College of Vermont at the age of 66 to earn her Associates Degree. “For those people who say you don’t learn from failure,” commented Rita, “I am here to disagree. I had never had Algebra before and I didn’t pass it the first time. I had to struggle to accomplish it. It’s hard to retain the information when you are older. I truly started from scratch.”

    Graduating with her Associates Degree in June 1996, Rita was surrounded by her family and even grandchildren. What she announced next however stunned many present. While one degree was great, it was not the totality of her dream. So she entered Vermont Technical College Nursing Program and on June 22, 2002 at the age of 78, graduated with her nursing degree that fulfilled not only her own childhood dreams, but completed a family pursuit of higher educations as well. Rita’s sister, Rena Charlebois Booth, graduated from CCV in 1984 with a degree in Human Services and her sister Jeanne Charlebois Bernek became CCV’s oldest graduate at 81 earning her degree in Business on June 4, 2011. “We didn’t have the chance when we were younger,” shared Rita, “but we all so valued education. It was important for us to finish what we dreamed of.”

    To anyone who mistakenly thinks that Rita’s amazing journey ends here and that Rita is retired, you could not be more mistaken. At 87 years young, Rita can be found volunteering with a  family member her brother, “Mr. C”, undergoing dialysis,  and in the past walking upwards to three miles a day, singing with the church choir, chairing local Cemetery Committees or traveling with friends and church members to Europe several years ago. She even chuckles when she shares that people were worried on a church trip to Italy that she might not be able to keep up. Father Ward, who headed the group, always stated to anyone who would listen, ‘If you are looking for Rita, she is in the front of the group, with me.”

    At the head of a pack of people her whole life, Rita proudly wears the badges of wife, mother, daughter, sister, community member, business owner, nurse, and like countless others of her generation simply sees her drive, work ethic and sense of responsibility as lessons learned in family life on the farm and in the war years. No matter the job, the task or the position she held Rita always lived by two mantras. “I never asked people to do something I wouldn’t do and I always treated people with respect, dignity and tried to lend a helping hand when I could.”

    The Valley Voice salutes Rita Charlebois Booska and all of her generation who live among us in Addison County and continue to pass on to friends, neighbors and generations of their own families the pride, self-determination, work ethic and common sense that did more than save a nation in a time of war, it gave America its rise to a position in the world… all with the hard work and dreams of a generation. As Eleanor Roosevelt challenged a nation in 1947 to ‘do the thing you think you can’t do.’ The first lady need not have worried. Rita Booska was listening and well on her way to doing just that.


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