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Bringing up the Vail Valley

Carolyn Pope
Special to The Vail TrailThe new playground at the Rumpelstiltskin preschool.
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Most people would be a little intimidated having 40 guests five days a week, 52 days a year. Especially guests who range from 2 1/2 to 6 years old.

Not Rob and Kathy Kunis. On June 6, the couple celebrated 30 years of being chief entertainers, caregivers, educators, diaper changers and nap patrollers to keep the children happy, healthy and learning on a daily basis. The duo own the Rumpelstiltskin preschool.

It’s been quite a road for the couple, who both grew up in the south side of Chicago. Their mothers were acquainted and introduced them in church. After spending more than seven years in the service and Vietnam, Rob returned to find out that the moms were still in cahoots, as they coerced Kathy to invite him to a teacher’s dinner. At the time, she was teaching sixth-grade reading and history in the Chicago suburbs.

There’s something about a man in a uniform; Kathy said yes to his proposal after only seven days of dating.

They spent time at Fort Benning, Ga., and Berlin, Germany. Upon returning to the States, Rob attended Northeastern Illinois University on the G.I. Bill. Kathy continued teaching, pursuing a master’s degree in reading and working toward a doctorate in special education. The couple came to Vail on two vacations in 1976 and 1977 and the Rocky Mountains got in their blood. They knew this is where they would love to live.

Kathy subscribed to the Vail Trail and would read it every week.

“I was home listening to ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver and picked up my Vail Trail and read about a preschool for sale,” she says. “I decided to go see what it was all about.”

At the time, Rumpelstiltskin was located in the Eagle-Vail Business Center.

“I thought it was so cute,” she says. She called Rob, and his response was instantaneous.

“Sign those papers,” he replies, knowing he’d had enough of the city and loved the mountains. They jumped in their VW van and headed west.

Arriving in Vail, Kathy immersed herself in the growing preschool. Rob started working a housekeeping supervisor job in Lionshead, but when Kathy ended up one teacher short, Rob jumped in to lend a hand. He never left.

“I was a history and philosophy major,” he says. “I planned on teaching 19-year-olds about Aristotle. Now, I teach these munchkins about history and science and whatever else I can teach at their level.”

Inspiring young minds with a love of knowledge is a core concept at the school. They have a curriculum that includes math, science, history, geography, reading and writing. From all indications, the children are prepared for kindergarten when they head out the door. Fun, however, is the method to create lifelong learners.

“Because we are a structured preschool with a curriculum, the children thrive,” Kathy adds. “The day is broken up into sections, so they are never bored. They’re not just running around like crazy. Even when they have free time in the morning, they have stations to go to and they learn to clean up after themselves.”

“They’re innocent and respectful,” Rob says. “They’re sponges. They’ll absorb anything you throw at them.”

The school has grown to be a family business. Newlywed daughter Allison Shapton has been in and out of the school helping since she was a teenager. She now works at Rumpelstiltskin full time. She teaches reading and is currently teaching the children all of the states and where they are located.

“We teach the kids about the solar system,” Rob says. “They fly spaceships between planets. One day, one boy’s aunt laid out varying sizes of circles on the floor and asked the boy to sort them, expecting he’d sort them by size. Instead, he made this complicated pattern, then went through and named off all the planets in order. His aunt was amazed.”

It’s not always been a clear track, nor an easy one. Rob has suffered from back problems for many years, which meant he couldn’t drive and was pretty immobile, to say nothing of the pain.

“That kind of screwed us up for a while,” he adds.

At one point, they had two locations, but retaining good employees became a problem. They have been at their current location in Eagle Bend for 15 years. They serve 40 children per day, with four to five teachers per day. Three of the educators are director-qualified.

“We once thought about moving to Arizona, but when we came back, it was too hot,” Kathy says. “It was the blizzard of 1983. We thought we’d have to open up a preschool there, and we already have one in Vail.”

Suzanne Dauphinais had her six children attending “Rumpel” for most of the years the school has been open.

“I was there 25 of the 30 years and they’re just the best,” she says. “They offer a unique environment for all of my kids. My kids didn’t want to come home because they had so much fun. It’s difficult leaving your children behind when you go to work, but Kathy and Rob made it easy because they loved my kids so much.”

Realtor Michael Slevin grew up in Vail and attended Rumpelstiltskin in the early years.

“I remember Kathy driving me to my mom’s store in her VW bus after a fun-filled day. To this day, every time I see a VW bus I think of her and Rumpelstiltskin, the people who cared for me and my friends, the songs, the games and of course, the naps.”

“A lot of grown-ups who attended Rumpel as kids will walk in the door,” Allison says. One of her favorite students is now a TV producer in L.A. “He brought me all of his newspaper articles from his career and then sat in circle (with the kids) and sang the songs from when he was a preschooler.”

So, what’s so important about children attending schools like Rumpelstiltskin?

“Kids are learning out of control from ages 1 to 5,” Rob says. “Doesn’t it follow that the child’s mind is amazing at this age level?”

“It’s about learning how to share and socialize with other kids,” Kathy says. “There are rules in life on how to live with other people. We strive for social, emotional and intellectual development.”

“Kathy and Rob’s 30-year commitment to the children and families of this valley remains as strong as ever,” Slevin says. “The school today feels very much like it did when I was a child ” like a little bit of home away from home. We are so fortunate to have the Rumpelstiltskin family helping teach and care for ours. Let’s hope there is another 30 years of their care in store for our community.”


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