Special to the Catholic Herald
“The best sermons are lived, not preached.”
Ruby Szitta has been following that comfortable adage for more than nine decades.
Szitta, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish of Bloomville, located in rural Lincoln County, is the namesake of Ruby Colorful Coffees, a growing Wisconsin roastery established by her grandson, Jared Linzmeier.
“Grandma always says, ‘if you work hard enough, things can happen.’ Well, she is right,” Linzmeier said. “We don’t over-leverage the story, but we do tell the truth about how we came up with the name. It’s just really heart-warming.”
Celebrating her 93rd birthday this month, Szitta was born on an 80-acre family homestead in the town of Price, located 17 miles northeast of Antigo.
“It was during a blizzard,” Szitta said. “My father had to drive the horse-drawn sleigh to Bryant, to get the doctor.”
She was fifth of six children—five girls and a boy — born to Sam and Mary Spears. The homestead had no electricity, telephone or running water. What it did have was cows, chickens and draft horses. There were kerosene lamps for lights, a wood-burner for heat, and, for entertainment, a wind-up record player and a radio powered by a car battery.
“I didn’t miss any of that because I didn’t know what it was like to have those things,” Szitta says. “We were poor, but we didn’t know that either.”
After attending the one-room Kent School, Szitta and her sisters moved into Antigo for high school, staying with local families and helping with chores in return for board. She continued her education at Langlade County Normal School, the start of a teaching career that spanned decades.
The family attended St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Neva, but the lengthy distance from the homestead and constant work on the farm didn’t allow it to be a weekly occurrence. Instead, like many rural families of the day, Szitta completed her Catholic education and rites of confirmation as an adult, shortly after her marriage.
That leads to one of her favorite stories: How she met her husband of nearly 50 years, August Szitta.
“I was going to teachers college and I had a Model A Ford coupe that I had to take to the Antigo Co-op Oil garage to get its lights fixed,” she recalls. “When two of my sisters and I went to pick it up, it wouldn’t start. August came out to help and told us he needed a file. When we said we didn’t have one, he said ‘what kind of girls wouldn’t have a single nail file between them?’ He just couldn’t believe that. It was something we always remembered.”
Her future spouse rounded up the equipment and got the jitney back on the road. He also got Ruby’s address.
“He came to see me because he liked what he saw at the gas station,” Szitta said.
The couple was married at St. Mary Catholic Church in Antigo in 1949 and purchased a farm in far western Langlade County. It started as dairy operation, before transitioning to beef cattle following a barn fire in January 1976.
They had five children, including four daughters, Mary, Cheryl, Nancy, Margaret, and son, Dan. August died in 1996, but Dan and his mother remain in the farm, raising and selling beef cattle and hay. Her family has since grown to include nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Szitta worked as a substitute teacher in the Antigo school district until 1974 and as an instructional assistant for another 20 years. Most recently she was a “special friend” volunteer for elementary schools.
“I value education and I have always loved working with the younger children,” she said. “You could see their progress. I just loved them all.”
Continuing her work with youths, she was a founder and leader with the Summit Satellite 4-H Club for 25 years.
“I went into 4-H because our children had horses and wanted to be involved and we couldn’t go back and forth to Antigo all the time,” she said, “so we started one out here.”
Szitta also found time to serve as the town of Summit clerk for 30 years and remains active as a poll worker and election inspector, joking that she “knows just about everybody in the town.”
Throughout it all, she has remained tightly wed to her faith. She and August were among the first in the area to sponsor displaced persons from Europe, savaged by World War II, through a national resettlement program embraced by Catholic Relief Services and St. Mary Catholic Church in Antigo. They hosted two immigrant families from Germany and Poland between 1950 and 1952 and she remains in contact with their descendants today.
“We needed help and we wanted to help those families, plus we had room for them,” Szitta says. “They stayed with us and helped us on the farm, but they weren’t really farmers. We used draft horses and they had trouble with them. The horses didn’t understand Polish or German.”
Years later, while August worked in Rhinelander, the couple became involved in a Department of Corrections program helping young people at risk of incarceration.
“They weren’t bad kids. They just needed some guidance and a helping hand,” Szitta stressed.
The farm has been home to an array of dogs adopted from the local humane society, along with the cattle and, for many years, the family’s horses. Szitta admits to a special love for all things equine dating back from her youth, when she rode the draft horses. Except on the most bitter of winter days, she continues to handle her share of barn chores and responsibilities.
“I love the farm because I grew up on a farm,” she said. “I grew up with hard work and I want to keep working as long as I can. It is important stay active.”
She also has a yen for traveling, visiting many of the lower 48 states, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Japan and South Korea. She hopes to join her grandson, Jared, on some of his coffee bean-buying trips to Central America as COVID restrictions ease.
“I still have my passport and I’m ready to use it,” she said. “I keep it current.”
Like many of her generation, Szitta is a bemused by the fuss over her lifetime of quiet accomplishments. She has, she says, simply lived by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“We always had a deep belief in God and prayer. It was part of our upbringing and brought down to us from our parents,” she said. “It has moved down to the grandchildren and now the great-grandchildren. I love my church, I love my friends and I love my family.”
Over a decade, her namesake, Ruby Colorful Coffee, has created a loyal following of connoisseurs, earning accolades from the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And its Stevens Point café has been named the best coffee shop in the state by Food & Wine magazine.
“It really exploded on the market,” Linzmeier said. “It only took 14 or 15 months for us to have to move from the garage to our roastery in Nelsonville. The success was pretty much immediate.”
When Linzmeier first approached his grandmother with the idea of naming his business after her, he had trepidations.
“So many of the coffee brands I was seeing had these hardcore, masculine names. I wanted something softer and more honest and my grandma has always been a really positive person in my life,” Linzmeier explained. “Who could ever fault naming something after your grandmother? The more I thought about the name the more I knew it was perfect.”
Attention to detail, commitment to quality, and a respect for the community are attributes Szitta has practiced for nine-plus decades. She had led by example and her grandson is proud to continue that legacy.
“She has always been just super energetic and a real go-getter,” Linzmeier said. It’s an honor being able to share this business and its success with her.”