Born into poverty in an Irish tenement in Brooklyn, NY in 1920, Rita (Whitmore) Stofflet went on to enrich so many lives with her abundant humor during her 101 years. Rita died September 10, 2022 at Golden Years of Lake Geneva, with family by her side.
Reflecting on life at age 100, Rita said, “You experience all kinds of tragedies and good things, and you get your money’s worth. But I look at it, and I can’t believe it was as wonderful as it was.”
It didn’t start out that way. Rita remembers having little food as a child, “eating fried potatoes and onions night after night” made by her single mother, Ethel. Later in life, always a member of the Clean Plate Club, Rita would say, “I eat it all because I paid for it”, and “I like anything I can get for nothing.” (It’s even funnier if you imagine her quotes said with her Brooklyn accent.)
Rita was the last survivor of the six Whitmore siblings: David, Elizabeth (Lila), Josephine, Marion, and Albert.
During the Depression, to give Rita a better life, Josephine and husband Andy took her in at age 13 and raised her. She remembered roller-skating through Brooklyn, earning hot lunches by escorting a student with disabilities to school on the subway, and taking a job gift-wrapping packages at Macy’s in Manhattan for $12.50 per week.
Rita said she even touched FDR’s cape at a speech in Brooklyn, and once babysat for gangster Jake “Legs” Diamond’s kids. “They told me, keep the curtains closed.”
She attended Girls Commercial High School, where she learned secretarial skills that she eventually put to work off Wall Street. Even when dementia took its toll, she could still sing her high school song: “We’re Girls Commercial, yes, we are, yes, we are. In everything we are the star, we are the star.” To so many throughout her life, Rita was always the star.
During WWII, she met the love of her life, Sgt. John W. Stofflet, at Fort Hamilton, NY, where she was a USO volunteer. One day her priest mentioned, “The USO is looking for nice girls to listen to homesick soldiers and dance with them at the Fort’.”
John was from Watertown, Wisconsin, and a member of the U.S. Army Port of Embarkation Band. They did dance and fall in love. He proposed in the shadow of the Verrazzano Bridge, and they married in April of 1944.
John and Rita moved to Wisconsin after the war and raised three children: Bonnie (Anderson), Nancy (Ronald Morton), and John (Anna Trull).
Distance could not diminish Rita’s love for her NY extended family after she left. She loved them as much as she loved her hometown. “I’m not from New York City, I’m from BROOKLYN!”
In Wisconsin, Rita continued her work as an executive secretary, eventually at United Way. She volunteered often at her children’s schools, always attending their events, and was Worthy Matron of the Walworth Order of Eastern Star in 1959. She was named Volunteer of the Year in Highlands County, Florida for her work as a retiree reading to young children in schools. “Bigshot…dot the ‘i’”.
Her husband John died in 1995 after 51 years of marriage. “Why did he have to die and spoil the whole thing?” She eventually returned to her beloved Williams Bay, Wisconsin and Walworth County.
Rita had seven grandchildren–Jenni (Matt) Thompson, Jacki (Jeremy) Hogan, Ryan (Megan) Anderson, Max and Nick Morton, and Taylor and Kaia Stofflet. She had 7 great-grandchildren (Paige, M.J., Caleb, Will, Olivia, Evelyn, and Alayna). “That’s a lot of kids. Sheesh! We must be Irish!”
She was thrilled to attend weddings of children and grandchildren, which couldn’t come too soon. “When are you getting married? Before or after I’m dead?”
Her faith and the United Church of Christ were very important to her. “Of course, I go to church. Someone has to save the rest of the family!”
Rita loved the holidays, especially as she approached 100. “Sheesh! What’s that big box? My casket?” “I’d better open my presents now. I might not be here next week.”
In Rita’s final years, she was so grateful to her many devoted caregivers at Golden Years of Walworth and Lake Geneva, as well as Aurora at Home Hospice. “They should have named you Grace…’cuz you’re amazing.” “You’re really nice…and I’d say that even when I’m sober.”
Late in life, Rita was known to wag her finger when passing the funeral home, saying, “Not yet!”
She survived COVID at age 100. As she faced death at age 101, Rita kept that sense of humor, remarking to the hospice intake nurse listening to her chest, “Is it still beating, or are you the undertaker?” Despite health challenges (“I’m losing my voice. I’m sure that’ll make some people happy”), Rita persevered.
She was in awe each time you’d remind her she was a centenarian. “God, thank you. I didn’t think I’d make it this far!”
God, thank you for Rita Stofflet, the Belle of Brooklyn. They should have named YOU Grace…’cuz YOU were amazing!
We love you, Mom! “Yeah, I still like you too.”
Family and a small circle of friends will gather to remember Rita someday soon. If you’d like to honor her memory, please consider feeding other hungry children through Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, or by donating to the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, or the Badger Childhood Cancer Network.
Toynton Funeral Homes of Walworth is assisting the family. 262-275-2171.