An Interview with Paul A. Tobia

Posted on November 22, 2016 by Maria Bronkema


You may know him as tutor or as a Fountain House in-house teacher, but before that, Paul Tobia was a licensed teacher in grammar schools. He has always had a love for learning and teaching, and when he became a member of Fountain House, Paul brought that love with him.

Paul received his Master’s in Education and went on to become a grammar school teacher in the South Bronx.  He taught in the NYC Public School System for five years, followed by five years of teaching in Catholic Schools, before coming to Fountain House.  When asked about what subjects he taught, he said, “I taught all subjects.”  But more importantly he learned.  He stated, “the children were my best teacher.” Paul was a truly dedicated teacher.  He even took his students to see movies on the weekends, when a half fare price ticket was available for them. He learned his students were just like the movie characters they saw. His students were tough, but he enjoyed working with them.  He remembers fondly learning their street slang, such as the term “roach” for a marijuana cigarette.

He was amazed by one student, Joseph Ratti, who has always kept in contact with him. At first, Joseph took out a belt and threatened to hit Paul, saying “if you don’t teach me right, I’ll whip you.”  And so Paul worked with him.  This child loved learning, and Paul was an amazing teacher. His students’ parents loved him.  Paul says “I consider teaching a calling to serve.” The boys and girls prepared him for his entire future life. When Paul left teaching and entered a mental institution, he received a letter from Joseph.  It was the source of great inspiration. Paul had made an impact, and continues to do so.

In 1971, when Paul first became a member of Fountain House, he met Susan Keitel (now Lieblich).  Knowing he was a teacher, she assigned him the job of tutoring. By making him a tutor, her objective was to create confidence in him. He tutored in the evening, after the work-ordered day.  He recalls that he taught one member, Roger Jones, to read and write.  Paul takes great pride in this accomplishment—both for him and for Roger.  Soon after, Susan felt he was ready to move on and teach at Fountain House.  What they created was the beginning of the Education Unit at Fountain House.  Paul taught in the evening in a “one room school house” so to speak.  In that one classroom, Paul taught members who were just learning to read and write, while he helped others prepare for college. He felt astounded by the varied levels of learning, as well as excited. Everyone had a place in his classroom.

Paul continued to work closely with Susan.  At Susan’s invitation, he attend a Fountain House Board meeting where he met with John Beard, the director of Fountain House and his wife, who became Paul’s mentor.  Mrs. Beard would then help Paul to teach fellow members in the evening.  They developed a great relationship because of their mutual love of learning, one which Paul still remembers fondly. 

Paul continued to teach at Fountain House for several years, before he stopped attending due to hospitalizations.  He spent several years away from the clubhouse, but when he heard that Susan had returned to Fountain House, so did he! She instantaneously put him in charge of beginner readers. Later, he taught poetry as well. He continues to teach and tutor members.  He wants to begin teaching science in the next semester of in-house classes.

Paul’s journey at Fountain House truly reflects that membership is for life.  When asked what he enjoys most about being a member of Fountain House, Paul stated “multi-media, teaching, and the relationships.”  He says being at Fountain House has been a good experience and that he feels he can still contribute to the community.  As he has gotten older, he feels he has gotten stronger and wiser.  He comes in almost daily to work with other members and staff on the Education Unit.  He says he will continue to teach at Fountain House because he is a teacher—“once a teacher, always a teacher.  I just love teaching!”



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