Carol Koby with President Barack Obama.

When you’ve lived in the desert long enough, you get used to having part-time neighbors—people who come and then go as the weather changes.

Carol Koby and her husband, Denis Carey, are “locals”—at least while the weather in Wisconsin is way too cold.

“A friend from Madison told us how appealing of a place the desert is,” she says. “We’d always wanted to go somewhere during the winter. Here, the weather, the sunshine, no humidity and NO BUGS were appealing enough—then add to that becoming immediately involved in the political environment of the area and meeting so many welcoming locals who made us feel at home.”

Koby, 79, an only child born 14 years after her parents married, was born and raised in Superior, Wis. (“The most northwest corner of the state: ‘Little Scandinavia,’” she says), in a family with four Swedish grandparents.

“My mother was 36 when I was born. She was a fabulous musician,” Koby says. “She played piano by ear, and was a frustrated performer and entertainer. I think she lived her life through me: She wanted me to do what she didn’t get to do herself. I had six lessons a week—music, dance and violin. She and her brother had an orchestra and did sing-alongs. We’d go to senior homes and get people dancing. We were a real dog-and-pony show. I thought every family got together and sang after dinner.

“She was a real ‘stage mother,’ and I was always performing as a kid. She said that in spite of my being shy, she wanted me to be more comfortable—I had terrible stage fright. She was also a great cook and baker, and did lots of volunteer activities.

“My dad was 44 when I was born, ‘Mr. Steady,’ a wonderful person. He was crazy about my mother. He was very Scandinavian—reserved, not outgoing or affectionate. He didn’t talk much, and he worked for the same company for 44 years. What I remember most is that he was a voracious reader—history, nonfiction, and he always knew the answers on Jeopardy!

“My father was always there—a decent, decent man.”

Koby earned a scholarship to Stephens College in Missouri, where she majored in music. “I had thought I couldn’t function without my mom, but I found out I could,” Koby says. “She had so dominated my life until then. I always assumed my life would be a hope chest and marriage and lots of kids. I had never thought about a career.”

“My life journey potentially would have been a lot smoother in the earlier years had I completed my education, and established my own identity and place in the world instead of succumbing to someone else’s definition of who I should be. That habit continued for far too long.”

carol koby

Koby was named “Alice in Dairyland,” and spent a gap year after her two years at Stephens representing Wisconsin’s dairy industry. She once competed in a cow-milking contest (“I didn’t know how to milk a cow! The night before, they taught me to think of each teat as a clarinet, and play it.”) and occasionally judged hog contests. The position was a full-time job promoting Wisconsin’s agriculture and dairy industry around the country, and Koby says it changed her life.  

Koby later moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and changed her major to communication arts and broadcasting. “I had done so many interviews and lots of radio and television while I was ‘Alice,’” she says. “The decision to change my major was the turning point in my life.

“Before graduating from college, I met a dashing Air Force pilot and got married. He was bossy and controlling, but I thought that meant he cared. I insisted on finishing college, and had my wonderful daughter, Kristen. The marriage didn’t last.”

Koby’s career in media took off after college. She’s done everything from copywriting and buying media time, to hosting a daily television show, to being the first director in charge of women’s issues at a Milwaukee TV station, to on-air news reporting. She was the director of consumer affairs at a Madison television station and moderated a public-health television series. She has also been active in volunteer activities, primarily related to health and policy. She has wonderful pictures with the likes of Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Barack Obama.

“I decided at 50 to go back to school, and got a (master’s) majoring in continuing and vocational education, with a focus on women and health. It was my 50th birthday present to myself,” she says.

Koby had been remarried for many years when her beloved husband was diagnosed with frontal-lobe dementia in the mid-1990s. She cared for him as long as she could, while becoming knowledgeable about the illness and involved in organizations that inform state policy.

After her husband’s death in 2001, Koby responded to an offer to do a radio program for an aging audience and launched All About Living, which she wrote and produced for more than 18 years. She recently retired, but has continued her public-policy work as president of the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin; she also sits on other boards.

Sixteen years ago, Koby was attending a Rotary Club meeting (“They encourage doing the best job you can and surrounding yourself with leaders and contributors to the community. I love that!”) when she met Denis Carey, a retired dentist whose long-time wife had died of cancer. They subsequently married and have been devoted to each other for the past 16 years. Koby and Carey have made permanent friends in the desert and take advantage of many arts and educational opportunities here.

What does Koby wish she could do over in her life? “I wouldn’t get married so early!” she says. “My life journey potentially would have been a lot smoother in the earlier years had I completed my education, and established my own identity and place in the world instead of succumbing to someone else’s definition of who I should be. That habit continued for far too long.

“When it comes to making a difference in the world, the obvious answer is to help one person at a time, and to do something to change policy for the good of society. If you can do both, you’ve earned a place on the Earth.”

Her advice? “Make sure you develop your own potential, and have that solidly in place before you get married and have a family. Develop your own independent sense of self. Figure out who you want to be, and don’t let someone else decide that for you.”

While she only lives here part-time, Carol Koby is a neighbor well worth getting to know.

Anita Rufus

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...

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