Anita Smith likes to make grown men cry.
She succeeded once again recently as handmade quilts were given to members of Col. Richard “Buck” Francisco Marine Corps League Detachment 1451, a group of former Marines.
Smith is behind Whidbey Island Quilters, which is a loosely constructed group that began making quilts several years ago for veterans. Fittingly, they’re called Quilts for Veterans; it’s completed and presented 88 quilts to date.
“We just want to thank them for their service,” Smith said, who’s unofficial title is Quilt Supervisor.
At the most recent giving of the quilts, a few Marines got misty-eyed while radiant smiles beamed from others. Each was presented a colorful quilt, all different in pattern and color.
The quilt presentation was a surprise addition to the monthly meeting of the Marine Corps League Detachment, comprised of mostly South Whidbey residents.
“We wondered what was up,” said Joseph Johnson, his quilt wrapped around his shoulders. “What an amazing gesture.”
Smith and other quilting members presented the quilts one by one. Many say the giving ceremony is the best part of the long journey each quilt undergoes.
“I grew up in a military family so it’s close to my heart,” said Susan Dirkes.
The gatherings of these quilters are not old-fashioned quilting bees with women sitting in a circle, needle and thread in hand.
They sit at sewing machines during monthly meetings. Some work from home on huge machines to tackle the final step. Smith estimates between eight to 14 hands touch one quilt from all the steps involved.
“They’re not a quilt until they are quilted,” joked Connie Duddridge as she showed a quilt’s three layers, top, bottom and insulating batting layer in between.
It’s those three layers, measuring 60-inches by 70-inches, that get sewn together on a huge 14-foot long sewing machine, called a long arm machine.
Some prefer the first step — sorting through bags of donated fabric and picking out pieces to join together like a puzzle.
“Cutting and sewing whatever’s in the scrap bag, I love to make matches,” said Mary Beth Clark. People of all ages show up at the Deer Lagoon Grange meetings the first Wednesday of the month to help assemble the quilts. They stay a couple hours or all day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Making quilts is second nature to Ginny Mayer, 88.
“I had five daughters and made quilts for all of them,” she said. “Now, I have 12 grandkids and 17 great grandchildren so what I’m doing is stocking up on making quilts for all of them.”
She makes time for stitching quilts for veterans because she enjoys seeing their faces light up, and she’s partial to patriotic colors.
“I enjoy sewing for veterans in red, white and blue and bright colors,” Mayer said.
Smith particularly wanted to surprise this group of Marines known for their Christmas “Toys for Tots” drive.
“We’re giving to the givers,” she said during the ceremony. “It’s real hard to surprise people who are givers.”
But surprise they did.
The retired Marines were scheduled for their monthly meeting at Holmes Harbor Rod & Gun Club in Langley March 14. Many also had dinner at the restaurant before the 6:30 p.m. gathering.
Smith let member Tom Keltner in on the secret so he could invent “misdirections” to get the whole Detachment to the meeting.
“I told some stubborn members that we were having a special dinner of Maine lobster and prime beef, that I needed them to RSVP to plan how much to order,” Keltner said. “I told some members that awards were to be presented for outstanding Marine of the year.
“I told not one soul,” he said of the top secret plot. “Not my wife or my best friend, nobody knew the truth. I felt like a little school kid with Anita’s and my secret.”
The quilters quietly assembled before the league’s scheduled meeting and hid a huge pile of quilts under a sheet on a table.
Wearing their shiny red jackets and hats embroidered with their Detachment name, members filed in.
That’s when the jig was up. Smith introduced the quilters and their reason for crashing the gathering.
Tom Keltner choked up when presented with a quilt with the word “Believe” stitched in.
Keltner predicted that the Detachment, which he said is comprised of “old, used, crusty Marines,” wouldn’t think themselves deserving of such a gift.
“As survivors of real combat action, we carry guilt. Some had breakfast with their buddies in the morning only to cry over their ultimate sacrifice that same evening,” Keltner said.
The Detachment is named after Richard “Buck” Francisco, who died in June 2016. Francisco was a longtime South Whidbey resident with a long list of military achievements.
“I am sure most of us wanted to cry like hungry babies during the presentation, but waited until the ride home,” Keltner said.
“You cannot heal sorrow in a shell, alone, in silence.”
At the end of presentation, Ed Donery, Detachment Sergeant at Arms, summed up the feeling in the room.