Steamboat Springs In 1965, Rusty de Lucia received an acceptance letter from the Peace Corps inviting her to teach English in Thailand.
The day before that letter arrived, she signed a contract to teach English at a middle school in New York. De Lucia put the Peace Corps on hold for her succeeding 40-plus-year career as an educator, but she never forgot her adventurous dream.
Not long after her second retirement in June 2008, de Lucia started filling out her second Peace Corps application.
"I don't know what it's like to sit still," said de Lucia, who retired to Steamboat Springs in 1997 before spending 10 years teaching English and theater at Steamboat Springs Middle School. She first came to Routt County in 1955 to study acting at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp with her mentor, Charlotte "Kingo" Perry.
De Lucia got a final acceptance to spend the next two years assisting young teachers in the landlocked South African nation Lesotho at the end of the summer, and she leaves Steamboat on Nov. 1 for training.
A 67-year-old native of the Bronx borough of New York, de Lucia will join the 5 percent of volunteers who are older than 50 in the Peace Corps' approximately 7,500-person force. Energetic and eager to pursue the "thrill and adventure of traveling" that kept the service organization on her mind for more than four decades, de Lucia said she's prepared for Lesotho's most rugged living conditions.
The Peace Corps assignment will be de Lucia's first shot at sharing the teaching experience she's acquired since 1958, when she led her first children's acting class at Perry-Mansfield. The actor, director, teacher and grammarian recognizes her attention to students and love for teaching but is scared by the new challenge, she said.
"I know I can offer them the basics of the English language," she said. "That's no problem, but that's not what teaching is about."
Teaching from the heart
The teaching part should come naturally.
Joanne Churchill, a bookkeeper and registrar at the middle school who has worked with de Lucia as co-producer of school theater productions for the past 10 years, described de Lucia's ability to get the attention of a room packed with children.
"Here she has between 80 and 100 kids in front of her, and she has their undivided attention because of her ability to work with kids," Churchill said. De Lucia gives children total respect and gets it in return, an attribute that allowed her to direct large-scale productions with apparent ease, Churchill said.
"Rusty is a natural-born teacher, and she is a natural when it comes to the stage. When something is that inherent, it's very easy to impart it to others," she said.
Ann Keating, a basic life training teacher at the middle school and co-producer for its plays, said de Lucia is "a teacher by trade and in her heart" who is able to share a knowledge of theater that is "part of her whole being."
"One of her favorite lines is, 'There are no small parts, just small actors.' So whether she's working with a lead or if she's working with the farthest-back chorus person, her passion is the same and she expects the same out of the kids," Keating said.
De Lucia has a master's degree from Western State College of Colorado in theater and English. Early in her career, she spent three years teaching English to kindergarten children in Yokosuka, Japan. When she came back to the U.S., she taught elementary school on Long Island, N.Y., for 35 years.
Paying it forward
The weeks leading up to de Lucia's departure have been hectic.
She's still looking for a long-term renter to take over her house. And she finishes a three-night run as the title character in the Steamboat Players' production of the dark comedy "Kimberly Akimbo" today. The show, about a 16-year-old girl with the body of a 70-year-old woman, is at 7 p.m. at the Depot Art Center.
Kelly Anzalone, who has helped de Lucia with children's theater workshops and is technical director for "Kimberly Akimbo," said the Steamboat theater community will miss de Lucia while she's gone.
"She's not the kind of director that's going to make you cry," Anzalone said. "She's very supportive and easy to work with, and I definitely like picking things like that up from her."
De Lucia is a board member for the Steamboat Community Players; has acted in community theater productions including Cabaret and "Godspell"; and is the director of the Discovery Program for 8- to 10-year-olds at Perry-Mansfield.
Joining the Peace Corps has been a decades-long dream, but de Lucia's sense of adventure isn't the only thing driving her to far-off places to share her natural talent for teaching.
Charlotte "Kingo" Perry, who nicknamed de Lucia "Rusty" for her russet-colored hair, gave the young actress her first teaching job at Perry-Mansfield in 1958. Born Nancy Jane de Lucia, Rusty taught children's acting classes at the camp until 1965 and took a break to spend the summers with her three children - Audry, Charlotte and Jedd - until 1989. De Lucia has been on the faculty at Perry-Mansfield every summer since.
"Mostly since I've been retired from the middle school I've realized what a joyful, wonderful life I've had. : I've just had a feeling for at least two years now that really it's time to pay it forward," de Lucia said.
"I really want to give to someone else what Kingo gave to me: The opportunity to live life to its fullest."