Old School: Multifaceted woman at home (and work) in her 'castle'

FITHIAN — The minute Jodi Matthis Prosser walked into the old grade school in Fithian, she knew she wanted to buy it.

Built in 1954, the one-story red-brick building with 16,200 square feet of space met all of her home and business needs:

— Living quarters for herself and her husband, Mark Muller; for her parents, B.J. and Mary Matthis; and for other relatives, friends and guests.

— Plenty of space to store all of their belongings as well as numerous theater props, some for her own company, Good and Brave Productions.

— An easy-to-clean locker room with a drain for her dog-breeding business, LOMAH Retrievers, and for whelping, as well as kennels for her four English cream golden retrievers Sasha, Odin, Daffodil and Prince, as well as Banjo, a feisty hunting dog from Tennessee.

— Enough space to produce and package the chocolate toffee Prosser makes as part of her newly acquired business, Toffee Tales Inc.

— And classrooms, though most have been remodeled, for home-schooling her 15-year-old nephew Seth Matthis.

Seth rode a scooter down the hallway the other day to greet visitors at the main entrance to the old school.

"It's fun. It's big with all kinds of stuff," he said.

In June 2012, Prosser and Muller moved into the former Fithian Community Consolidated School in the small town between Urbana and Danville.

They had purchased the facility for $74,900 from a man who had lived there with his family. After a divorce, he decided to sell.

"This building had so much potential. I couldn't really pass it up," Prosser said. "My husband knew he was in trouble when I told him there was a stage."

Everything in its space

Though it's a daunting property to take on, the couple lucked out: The former owner had lived there for 15 or so years. He had already renovated three of the six classrooms.

To those, he added new windows and French doors and cut out in two walls large square passages to create a passageway.

One of the three rooms — it retains a green chalkboard on one wall — is a playroom/bunk room. Seth and other guests stay there.

The middle of the three spaces is dining and living room. A long table on one side seats at least 16. Across from it is a cluster of comfy couches, chairs and end tables. Bookcases under the windows and another against the wall are full of books (reading is one of Prosser's many interests).

Next is the large yet cozy kitchen, with lots of oak cabinets, two sinks and two islands. A smaller dining table rests on a platform near the east windows, overlooking a large yard where the dogs can run.

A mechanical engineer, the former owner also installed in two other rooms domestic water heater systems. He connected those to the heating pipes, creating four heating zones in the huge building.

Prosser's parents have their own space near the main doorway: Their rooms were once the secretary's and principal's offices and a faculty lounge. A half bath is close by.

The school intercom — it still works — remains behind the mirror above Mary and B.J. Matthis' bed. Prosser doesn't use it, not wanting to invade her parents' privacy.

Everyone who lives or stays temporarily at the Prosser-Muller home uses the boys' or girls' rest rooms and locker rooms, located on the west side.

The locker rooms sport large shower areas, each with four heads. The boys' bathroom also has three urinals — a selling point for Muller.

"Not too many men can say they have urinals in their bathrooms," said Muller, who works as the operator of the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District's wastewater treatment plant.

His and Prosser's bedroom and other guest rooms are on the north side of the building.

That's also where the gym, which doubled as the school cafeteria, is located. In it two basketball hoops with nets, plus a climbing rope, remain.

However, no one could play basketball there. No. 1, the gym is unheated. No. 2, it's being used as a giant storage unit for Prosser's, Muller's and others' many belongings.

Scattered among all the personal effects are theater props. You might have seen some of them in community theater shows: A pirate's ship. Snoopy's doghouse. A surrey from "Oklahoma!"

And in one corner stands a bright yellow scaffold. The former owner used it to change bulbs in the lights hanging from the high ceiling.

Near the gym are the P.E. supply room, the kitchen pantry and the old school kitchen, all given new uses.

Sweet deal

Prosser calls that kitchen her sanctuary. In the spotless room, all gleaming stainless steel and white, she makes her buttery, almond-chunked toffee, covering it with white, milk or dark chocolate, and then crushed pecans.

She purchases the chocolate from Blommer Chocolate Co. in Chicago. They like Prosser's toffee so much, they sell it in their retail area on Kinzie Avenue.

Prosser decided to start a home business after she was laid off from her job as a real-estate leasing agent in March 2012. She didn't know what she wanted to do until she had a serendipitous encounter that July at the farmers' market in Urbana with Toffee Tales founder-owner Audra Martin, who (like Prosser does now) sold her candy there.

Prosser talked about starting her own business. Martin told Prosser she wanted to sell hers.

"I told her she couldn't, that everybody loves her toffee," Prosser said. "We both looked at each other and, bing!"

They later talked more. Eventually Prosser, whose parents had owned a doughnut shop in Villa Grove when she was a kid, decided Toffee Tales was something she could do.

She and a silent partner who lives in the Chicago suburbs purchased the business. Martin taught Prosser her family toffee recipe and other things she needed to know.

"Audra's an incredible teacher, so patient," Prosser said.

The new Toffee Tales owner officially took over in January 2013. She soon began adding new flavors.

"It was cool to bring something of myself to the business. I didn't know how much I would like doing it. I really enjoy it. It's fun."

Still work to be done

While she has the toffee business down, Prosser admits her new home is a work in progress. Fortunately she has friends and relatives, including Seth's dad, Chris; another brother, Jeff; and brother-in-law, Ken Reid, who are willing to help.

Mary Matthis said she and her husband are glad to be living in the old school, mainly because they like being so close to family.

And Mark Muller has come to enjoy his new digs as well.

"It's the most interesting place I've ever lived in," he said. "It's unique."

Prosser loves it. One big reason: She and her husband can host large family gatherings there and not feel crowded.

"It's like somebody bought me a castle," she added. "It's huge, and I can leave all of my stuff in one place and not go to six different storage units to find props, costumes — whatever for my plays.

"It's just awesome to have it all here."

FAST FACTS: Things to know about Jodi Matthis Prosser

She's 47, the youngest of seven children, and attended third through mid-eighth grades in Villa Grove, finished at Holy Cross Grade School, Champaign, and graduated from Champaign Central High School in 1984.

She has four children, ages 21-25, plus three stepchildren.

She majored in theater and music at Eastern Illinois University.

She has acted in or directed more than 100 community-theater productions. Her most recent role was Diana in the musical "Next to Normal" at the Station Theatre in Urbana. And she will appear in Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" Feb. 20-March 8 at the Station.

She was drama director at Holy Cross and The High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign.

She has her own theater company, Good and Brave Productions, which mainly stages Madigral productions during the holidays and sings at the Renaissance Faire in Danville and other events.

She is choir director and gives voice lessons at St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Champaign.

She has an English cream golden retrievers breeding business called LOMAH, which stands for Land of Milk and Honey.

She home-schools her 15-year-old nephew, Seth Matthis of Newman.

A taste for toffee

After a successful holiday season with Toffee Tales Inc., Jodi Matthis Prosser is gearing up for Valentine's Day. Look for heart-shaped toffee suckers, roses and a 1-pound toffee heart.

After acquiring the candy business last year from founder Audra Martin of Urbana, Prosser began to add to Martin's family recipe 30 or so of her own flavors, among them dark chocolate orange pistachio (a hit), dark chocolate raspberry, s'mores, Mexican hot chocolate, bacon, banana split, smoky pepita and blueberry streusel.

Among local stores that sell the toffee, topped with dark, milk or white chocolate and crushed pecans, are World Harvest, Walnut Street Tea Co., Sun Singer Wine & Spirits and Cheese & Crackers, all in Champaign; Common Ground Food Co-op, Urbana; and Wyldewood Cellars Winery, St. Joseph.

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