Faces in the Crowd: Joe and Renee Tolgo

October 26, 2017

Most know him as their former middle school science teacher. Many know her as their former elementary teacher’s aide. But to know them, is to know that they are so much more than that.

Joe and Renee Tolgo were married on August 28th, 1982. On that day, Joe gained a wife and two kids: Jeremy and Josh. Since then, they’ve been to 47 states and 17 countries together: vacationing in the summers, finding family in Romania, visiting grandchildren in England, and houseboating through the Trent-Severn Waterway in Canada, just to name a few adventures. They have three granddaughters: Melody, Allison, and Isabelle, and they enjoy every minute spent with them.

Recently, the Tolgo’s just returned home from their third visit to find family in Romania. In fact, Renee’s written a book on the subject, Finding Family in Romania 2013, and Joe’s currently finishing up his own book, Romania 2013 – Finding Family 100 Years later.

Over the years, Joe’s made a name for himself as a Boy Scout leader, a wedding photographer, a winemaker, and most recently, a farmer. He’s also an avid wood-cutter, as his sons are all too familiar with that hobby.

Likewise, Renee has spent the last 35 years honing her skills as a stained-glass artist. But her artwork doesn’t stop there. Her creative endeavors also include epoxy art, tin art, and bead weaving, among others.

We were extremely fortunate to spend some time with the Tolgo’s recently and learn about their story. Needless to say, these two are more than just a couple of faces in the crowd.

Renee and Joe Tolgo with some of Renee’s stained glass creations.

Renee and Joe Tolgo with some of Renee’s stained glass creations.

Marion Press: Are you dressing up for Halloween?
Joe: Let me go put it on. [Joe leaves the room]
Renee: On Sunday there’s a family gathering of his – one of Joe’s nephews has a pot-luck gathering, and this year if you dress up you get to pick a goodie from the goodie basket. So Joe bought this costume when we took the girls to Canada this year. He’s from a family of thirteen children – a Catholic family – and his mother always wanted one nun and one priest. Out of thirteen children, she didn’t get any, until now.
[Joe enters the room dressed as a priest]
Renee: He looks pretty official with his beard and everything.

MP: How’d you two meet?
Joe: She used to work with one of my sisters at a bank, down in the Flint area, in Flushing.
Renee: I’m from Clio – it was actually Citizens Bank [the same company] that used to be here, it was one of the banks that used to be here in Marion. But I worked with his sister at the bank, and he would come on spring break or during summer, and a bunch of us would go out for lunch. I said, well, okay that’s who I’m gonna go out with. One day, Joe’s sister Pat told me, well, Joe’s gonna come to a wedding next weekend and I said oh, okay. So, she gave me his phone number and I called him, and pretended like I didn’t know about the wedding. And he asked me to go to the wedding in the Detroit area and a year later we got married.
Joe: 364 days later.

MP: How did you make your way to Marion?
Joe: I was working for a finance company in Grand Rapids, and I looked in the CMU (Central Michigan University) placement bulletin and Marion needed a science teacher – they needed a middle school science teacher. So I called up Ben Clark, who was the principal at the time, and he told me that he wanted to make a decision that day and asked if I could be there tomorrow. I said, “Sure, where’s Marion?”
He told me how to get here and so I grabbed my state map and drove up the next day. That was on a Wednesday and I started teaching the following Monday. This was in August of ’73. The year I got hired they hired a bunch of teachers: Ken Walrad, Wayne Partica, Greg Mikulich, Mike Marr, and myself.
I taught for nine years and then we committed matrimony.

MP: Is that what kids are calling it these days?
Joe: We used to put it that way.
Renee: Joe always says three disasters happened the day we got married.
Joe: We had not had a frost yet, and we had a state-wide heavy frost that night. And then the Zilwaukee Bridge fell over – one of the sections settled over a ten-minute period and they thought for sure the whole thing was going to go, but it stayed there and they fixed it and it’s held.
Renee: For 35 years.

10-27-17 Faces in the Crowd Joe and Renee Tolgo Engagement_Photo_1982 02
MP: So it sounds like you have a family of artists?
Renee: Both boys love to play guitar and sing. Jeremy has a guitar collection – probably 40 guitars now, at least 38, and he has a music room and he also modifies guitars. He was in the Air Force and retired after 23 years. He and his wife Jodi live in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our granddaughter Melody lives in England, and she just started teaching over there. She has a British accent and an American accent, and she can turn them on and off.
Joe: The U.S. and Britain: two countries divided by a common language! One time, when Melody was in third grade she was taking French classes and she said, “Yeah Grandma, now I know three languages: French, English, and American.”
Renee: Josh lives in Lake, and he has two daughters, Isabelle and Allison, and he wishes he had 38 guitars.
We love having the grandkids over. We’ll do arts and crafts; we’ll take them camping to Rose Lake. Isabelle had her first quad lesson this year.
Joe: She’s very outgoing and talkative and entertaining.
Renee: Well, she might grow up to be a stand-up comedian. That’s one of her goals; she’s funny. They call her mini-Josh sometimes because she’s just like him.
Joe: One life lesson that the girls taught me: You know what you know based on your experiences.
We used to have the boat parked in the yard when we weren’t fishing. We’d let them climb in the boat and sit in the seat and turn the steering wheel and play in it – make engine noises and stuff. So one day we took the boat to Rose Lake to go fishing. And we backed the boat up, slid it out of the trailer onto the water and parked the trailer.
And the girls’ eyes lit up, “Wow, we didn’t know that the boat came apart like that.” They thought all the framework and the wheels were just underwater on all the boats. And I thought, well why wouldn’t they think that? – they’ve only ever seen the boat sitting in the yard like that.

MP: How’d you get involved with Boy Scouts?
Joe: I started teaching [at Marion] in ’73, and Keith Heckathorn knew me because I had his daughter and son in class – one day he said, hey Joe, I wonder if you’d be willing to help out with the Boy Scouts a little bit. I said well, I can come and help out a little bit, I don’t know anything about it because I wasn’t a scout or anything, but I was willing to give it a try. So I came and helped out – and within a month I was the scout master. So I did that for 15 years.
We had two big trips – they were High Adventure Base trips. In ‘78 we went to Quetico Provincial Park up through Minnesota on the Canadian border. The Scenic Trails Council sent 25 boy scouts, and 8 of them were from Marion: Brian Swiler, Keith and Curt Kelly, Mitch Kime, Larry Johnson, Gerald Fewless, and Eric Robinson were some of the kids who went. It will be 40 years next year.
The next year we went to Cimarron, New Mexico – to Philmont Scout Ranch High Adventure Base. We did both those trips and I was only a few years into scouting so I was pretty proud of that.

MP: Any stories from your teaching days?
Joe: I was [teaching] in the high school for nine years, then I went to the elementary. I spent seven years in the elementary, then – along with the sixth graders – I moved back up.
One day I was standing in the hallway and there were students milling around; there were a couple of them over here talking and one of them said, “There’s Mr. Tolgo – I really liked being in his classes, his jokes were corny sometimes but he brought stuff in and showed us animals and plants and stuff, and he made it interesting – I enjoyed his class.” And the other one said, “Well, I guess overall I’d have to say I didn’t [enjoy the class].” And the first one said, “Well what didn’t you like about his classes?” And she replied, “It was those surprise quizzes. Every Friday a surprise quiz!”
Renee: That didn’t really happen. That’s a story.
Joe: But this one did really happen. So I’d take roll and on the first day I’d call on so-and-so, and I’d say oh yeah, I know your dad, he was a student of mine. And I’d call on the next kid and say, oh yeah, I think I know your Uncle Rick, and he’d say yeah that’s my uncle. And so I go through the whole roll doing that and one of the kids says to the other, “Wow he knows everybody in Marion.” And the other kid goes, “Yeah, he’s… he’s psychotic!”
Renee: Well he was there for 30 years. And a lot of the kids remember all the animals he’d have in his classroom – he did taxidermy. When we first got married – and we lived in a trailer the first year – we had a little counter between the kitchen and the living area. And that counter had a squirrel and a chicken and a partridge and pheasant, and maybe a raccoon. So, I said you’ve got to get those out of the house.
Joe: So I took them to school and that’s where they lived. And they live in the garage now.

MP: Tell us just a little bit about your Romania trips.
Renee: We took 5000 pictures the first year and the second year. It started because I do the genealogy. On my family’s side I can go way back to Scotland. On Joe’s mother’s side we could go way back in France. But on his dad’s side, we only knew his grandparents’ names and that’s all we knew. We knew his dad came over here in 1913 from Romania.
Joe: He came to [America] when he was 13 and always emphasized work hard, be honest, learn whenever you have the chance. If you have a chance to work for somebody, don’t ask what you’re going to be paid, just be glad that you have the chance to learn something new. [He told us] be serious about your education and you’ll be able to get a good job and your life will be easier than what his life was. He emphasized that we’re American – he didn’t try to teach us Romanian. But over the years we lost touch with our relatives over there.
Renee: It’d been 100 years since his father came, and in January of 2010 we started making plans to make a trip over there. We went for the first time in 2013. It was quite an adventure. We learned enough of the language to be able to ask basic things, and even if you can’t talk, hand gestures can help you find out which way to go to get to a city or store, so we got through okay. It all just fell together perfectly.
When we went, we didn’t know if we’d find anyone or not. We were gone a month, so we just planned all our stays for a month – not knowing if we’d meet anyone at all, because if we didn’t, it was still a vacation. We had just three pictures – we had family group pictures that were taken in ’61 and ’78 and we got copies of them that we took over there with us. Who knows if we would’ve found anyone without those pictures.

MP: I know you’ve visited 17 countries. Which one’s your favorite?
Joe: I’m not sure I can pin it down to one country.
Renee: Italy is a cool country. The drivers are crazy – there’s a lot of scooters and little cars. We couldn’t speak Italian, but it’s really neat to go into those little villages that are a thousand years-old, and Rome and Florence. It’s really cool.
Joe: The history there makes it more interesting – especially life along the Mediterranean.

MP: What about driving on the other side of the road in the UK?
Joe: You just have to be careful, and cross your fingers, and pray a lot.

MP: So you can just go over there with a Michigan license and drive?
Joe: Yeah. I used to think that only Sean Connery could do that.
The one year we went over and picked up Melody – Jeremy was in Germany [with the Air Force] the fourth time over – and we picked up Melody and flew from a small airport in England to a small airport in Ireland and we rented a car there and drove around on the left side of the road for a week or so. And then we flew back – dropped off Melody – and then flew to France and then we spent three weeks there and drove a different car on the other side of the road. And I thought, only Sean Connery used to be able to do this, but now I can too.

MP: And Renee, how’d you get your start in stained-glass?
Renee: Back in 1982 there used to be a stained-glass shop in Cadillac, called the Barn House. We were up there one day, and I was gawking through the window – I’d always liked stained-glass, but I’d never done it. I said to Joe, oh can’t we just go in and look around. And the guy [in the shop] started talking to us, and we signed up for a six-week class – this was right after we were married. So we both took the class. We each made a piece, and I really liked it. And so Joe would go to school, and I would go home and cut glass on the kitchen counter. And I just continued to do it. It takes a lot of time. Even the smaller pieces take a lot of time.
Joe: Fortunately, I took the class and it gave me an appreciation for it. It gave me an appreciation for the equipment that’s required and an appreciation for the patience that Renee has to have. You have to have a lot of patience to do good work.

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