Rita Louise Hytrek McWhorter died at the age of 97 on Wednesday March 15, in Hockessin, DE. She was born on January 22, 1926, in her parent’s farmhouse on the Nebraska prairie. The land had been acquired by her grandparents as part of the Homestead Act and their farm started the American branch of the Hytrek family. She was the fourth daughter to John and Teresa Hytrek and early on showed an independent and adventurous spirit.
She received an elementary education at the town’s one-room schoolhouse, arriving each day with her siblings via horse-drawn buggy. She developed a love of reading and learning along with the skills needed to be part of a self-sufficient farm family. She entertained herself with long solitary walks where she developed self-reliance, a keen eye for nature and a wonder for discovery. From an early age she would sing along with everyone in the family while working or playing, at home, school, and church. In her early twenties she played stand-up bass, even performing publicly as Charming Rita in a local band.
After graduating from High School, she set out to ‘see the world.’ She first taught school nearby to earn money, then moved to Chicago, Illinois and completed Secretarial School. During World War II, she worked as a secretary and fell in love with her first husband JR “Bob” McWhorter. After leaving the Navy, they married in 1946. He received his chemical engineering degree and joined the DuPont company. They relocating to Wilmington, Delaware in 1949.
From the 1940s to 60s, she gave birth to daughters, Karen, Diane, Laura, Paula and son, John. She ran a ‘ship shape’ home, teaching her kids to sing together as well as pursue their own interests.
In the 1960s, she matched her husband’s zeal for sailing, spending weekends on Maryland’s Northeast River racing 19-foot Lightnings. She taught marine navigation to aspiring boaters at the Wilmington Sail and Power Squadron and earned a ham radio license. She became proficient in Morse code and keyed messages to people around the world.
Whether hosting a bridge party or mulching her peonies, she was always fashionable, practical and inclusive. In the 1970s, she spoke publicly in support of redistricting New Castle County schools to reduce segregation and improve education for all children. She nurtured her own education and opportunity by volunteering on local election campaigns, attended classes at the University of Delaware, learning Spanish. She nurtured her spiritual life over decades at Wilmington’s First Unitarian Church.
After being widowed in 1970, she married Donald Smathers, making room in her home and heart for his children, Scott and Carla. She maintained her connection to her rural roots, regularly taking road trips to Hytrek family reunions in and around Stuart, Nebraska where she joined her siblings in putting on rambunctious ‘talent’ shows.
She was an avid walker and practiced yoga. She developed a love of birdwatching, often traveling with her binoculars and excited to add another species to a growing ‘life list.’ She spent more than a decade leading children’s discovery tours at the Ashland Nature Center, sharing her love and respect for nature with them and two of her grandsons.
In the 1980s and 90s she fulfilled her girlhood dream, travelling widely across six continents, discovering foods, culture, and birds in all parts of the world.
She kept sharp by regularly attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute where she also taught writing. She edited former Delaware Governor Russ Peterson’s works and later published Johanna, a novel based on her grandmother’s life on the prairie on their Homestead.
She lived independently until 2016 when she sold her home of 60 years and moved to Cokesbury Village. Even when her mobility decreased, she continued walking the halls of Cokesbury, bringing her sunny disposition to people she knew including the wonderful staff in Oakbridge Terrace Sussex. She continued bi-weekly video sessions with her kids and maintained a chipper ‘can-do’ attitude until her most recent illness.
Services for Rita will be held privately with her family.
Contributions in her memory can be made to Ashland Nature Center, PO Box 700, Hockessin, DE 19707.
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Ashland Nature Center
PO Box 700, Hockessin DE 19707