At 14, Toni Rilea was already piloting her own boat and setting crab traps. To earn spare change, she’d pull out a knife and offer to clean fish for Florida tourists returning to the docks. Within seconds, she’d scrape off scales, gut the fish and present customers with filets wrapped in clean paper.
Four years later, she was a Minnesota newlywed starting a family of four kids. She also managed a four-legged horde: multiple dogs, two cats, a hamster and a turtle. One dog, Sadie, was a wolf-German shepherd hybrid with blue eyes. Another, Trixie, was a bassett hound. After going on walkabout, Trixie produced a litter of 11 bear-like puppies of indeterminate origin. The Rileas found homes for all the pups but kept Harry, one of Trixie’s sons. For treats, “Mom would take him up to the Dairy Queen,” said her son, Tom. And, they had Tuffy, a Lhasa Apso.
Then there was Babe, a tiny, bedraggled white terrier Mrs. Rilea took in after her mother died and nobody else wanted him. He had crooked teeth and hair that came out in clumps.
“This thing looked like the Grinch,” said her husband, Ted. She loved the dog even more because of his ugliness. He repaid her tenderness with the fierce and compensatory protectiveness of tiny dogs. Those who approached their circle of two were met with feints and charges that were funny in their futility.
When other moms in her Minneapolis suburb saw an opportunity for a cigarette and martini while the kids ran out to play, Mrs. Rilea was marching over to her children’s baseball games with milk and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. “She wanted to be with us,” said her son, Russ.
That isn’t to say she never got mad. Occasionally, she chased them around with a wooden spoon and told them to wait until their father got home.
Another son, Tim, learned Toni Rilea could outrace 15-year-old legs when he taunted her with “You’ll never catch me.” He laughed so uproariously at his 5-foot-4 mother’s implacable pursuit–punctuated with her Minnesota-flavored vows of “Oh, I’ll getcha” — that she overtook him like a mama missile.
Once, one of her teenage sons came home after a beery night, popped a frozen pizza in the oven, turned it on, and fell asleep. All night long, it baked, hardening into a shrivelled crisp. But Mrs. Rilea’s affection for decoupage helped her fabricate a way to convey that this was a bad and potentially combustible idea.
She shellacked the remains of the blackened pizza and presented it to her son as a reminder not to do it again.
Mrs. Rilea, 74, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died Tuesday after a struggle with pneumonia. Her health had failed since February, when her 46-year-old daughter, Tricia Soltvedt, died of a possible drug interaction while vacationing with her husband in Hawaii.
Born Tonia Ella Whittaker, she grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., where her dad worked as a yachtmaker. Her future husband was a 15-year-old transplant from Dayton when he met 14-year-old Toni. Ted Rilea couldn’t believe her tanned skin; her filet knife; the fact she lived on a houseboat. “She was right on the dock, feeding the pelicans the skin” from the fish she cleaned, he said.
They married and spent 25 years in Minnesota, where her husband was president of a local of the International Typographers Union. They started raising their family in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. “She was a young, fun mom who got involved with the neighborhood,” her husband said. “There were always kids around us.”
The Rileas later lived in New Jersey while her husband was a labor relations executive at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1992, they moved to Chicago, where he became labor relations vice president at the Sun-Times.
Once her kids moved out, she drastically reduced the time she spent cooking — so much so, that she stored her board games in the oven.
Mrs. Rilea was adept at crossword and jigsaw puzzles; Sudoku, cribbage, and gin, and Trivial Pursuit and other board games. She enjoyed watching TV’s “Jeopardy” with her friends at Kelly’s Pub or The Store on North Halsted. “She could hold a conversation with the best,” her husband said.
The Rileas loved going to the racetrack. She’d wear shamrock earrings for luck. They had planned to go to Maryland’s Preakness race, scheduled for Saturday. “People leave out things” in life, her husband said, “and they shouldn’t.”
Visitation for Mrs. Rilea, who is also survived by 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, is scheduled Tuesday with a Wednesday memorial at Morris Nilsen Chapel in Richfield, Minn. A Chicago memorial is being planned.
When family members came to visit her at the hospital or in rehab, Mrs. Rilea didn’t want to dominate their time. “You guys, go, go, go. See your friends,” she’d urge them.
“If I’d have known,” Russ Rilea said, “I’d have hugged her harder, longer.”