There is a calming, confident demeanor observed as Rita Weiss reflects on her career in medical research/development and the good fortunes that she has encountered throughout her life.
Sitting in the Mediterranean-style lounge of The Terraces at Bonita Springs, this adult community’s resident council president says she is extremely pleased with the decision made in 2019 to move into the resort-style upscale community.
“I needed a safety net and that’s exactly what I got here,” she says. “Moving to The Terraces did not disappoint, especially considering that we (she and her husband Dick) moved in just one month before the COVID shutdown. The staff and management did an excellent job in caring for our residents during COVID and then during Hurricane Ian.”
But it’s the path that Rita took to reach the Bonita Springs community that is inspiring.
Few people can say that they’ve worked with a Nobel Prize winner — especially one whose medical research in the early 1950s isolated the polio virus and paved the way for the mass production of the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines that eradicated the crippling virus.
Rita’s fortuitous four-year stint with 1954 Nobel Prize winner Frederick Robbins, M.D., served as the launching pad for her successful medical research and development career.
Her turn of good fortune began years before working with Robbins when the then precocious Cleveland high school graduate received a scholarship to attend Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. As one of seven siblings in her household, a scholarship “was the only way I was going to get to go to school,” she explains.
The scholarship would prove to be a life-changing moment for a young woman following in the collegiate footsteps of her mother and grandmother — both of whom had received their degrees from Notre Dame College in Cleveland, Ohio. Their degrees in sociology and botany were not fields of interest for Rita’s educational goals, however.
At the time, she had her sights set on majoring in pre-med. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she says, decades after veering from a wannabe career as a medical doctor to medical research. Why the change? Early on in that quest, she realized that there were things that doctors had to do that she was not going to be comfortable doing.”
Rita quickly found a job as a clerk typist in the pathology lab of a Cleveland hospital. Soon after, she responded to a Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital ad and was hired to work in Robbins’ research lab as his technician. “Talk about stepping in it,” says Rita. The work was fascinating, and it established the prestigious foundation for her future career advancements.
She would continue working in the Robbins’ lab until shortly after she married when her husband Dick was transferred to New York. Even before settling in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, Rita had been offered a job at the Public Health Research Institute for the City of New York where she worked on tumor-causing viruses. “It seemed that everybody in the medical research field wanted an individual who had worked for Dr. Robbins,” adds Rita.
Opportunities for her came fast and furious, such as a role managing the virus testing service lab at the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry. Soon she’d step into the corporate world — working as a technologist with engineers from the scientific instrument manufacturer, Technicon Industries, in Tarrytown, N.Y. By 1984, Rita was appointed vice president for program management and tasked with the development process for all new products.
She and Dick ultimately moved to Stamford, Conn., a place they would call home for the next 40 years. Dick worked for the Helmsley-Spear company and by 2000, the couple became snowbirds – wintering at Pelican Bay in Naples.
Twelve years later, the couple moved permanently to Southwest Florida. And by 2016, Dick was having some health issues, prompting Rita to begin researching a move into a continuing care retirement community. “We needed a safety net and in 2019 selected The Terraces because we thought the community best met our needs and lifestyle,” Rita explained.
Little did Rita realize that she would soon be stepping into a new career — this time as a retired volunteer. Although she had previously volunteered with the duplicate bridge club at Pelican Bay, The Terrace’s brought her volunteering to a new level.
A year after moving to The Terraces, she expressed interest in joining the resident wellness committee. The committee’s overview was as though it was written for an individual with Rita’s credentials and medical knowledge. That committee work gave her the experience and confidence to seek election to the Resident Council.
She was elected to the resident council board and in January 2022, she stepped into the role of president of the council — a position she calls emotionally and mentally rewarding. The challenges of medical research and medical instrument development are now long past. But now, she enjoys the new challenges of her council role and that of resident ambassador. ¦
— The Terraces at Bonita Springs — a not-for-profit organization that opened in 2013 — is a boutique adult living Lifecare community featuring luxury residence options.