The mechanical thrum stuttered through the dark apartment. Unable to sleep, Jack Morrow fed fabric through the old Singer, eyeing the stitching with every push.
These past few months, the sound occupied most of his time. The 94-year-old worked 10-hour days, missed meals and occasionally fell asleep at his machine. But he couldn’t quit.
After years of making quilts for needy newborns, he was determined to reach 500 by the time he turned 95.
“Unfortunately, I’m kind of that way,” Morrow said. “Give me a project to do and I won’t stop until it’s done.”
In early August, he reached his goal, giving the blanket to Bundles of Love, a charity that distributes thousands of diapers, blankets and other baby essentials annually to families across the state.
The blanket he finished days before his Aug. 10 birthday displayed big robot characters. Not his most complicated but, as he explained in blue-inked cursive on a yellow sticky note stuck to the quilt, “This one looked so cute. I couldn’t cut it.”
This journey started seven years ago, when Morrow and his wife, Jackie, 88, moved into the senior living apartment complex Realife Cooperative of Bloomington. Morrow’s wife suggested her easily restless husband join a club that made blankets for Bundles of Love. Morrow knew little about sewing, but he thought he’d give it a shot.
“My father has to be kept busy and he likes doing things with his hands,” said his daughter, Nancy Dahlman.
As he works, Morrow said he likes to imagine newborns cradled in his blankets’ soft cotton — maybe a place to dry after a first bath. Usually Morrow sews in his apartment’s spare bedroom, but sometimes he takes the operation upstairs. He carries scissors, pencils and other materials in an ad hoc tool belt sewn from spare materials and tied to his walker.
As he passed 50 blankets, 100, then bigger milestones, it became clear he wouldn’t quit any time soon.
“The momentum gets going,” Morrow said. “And I still haven’t lost it at 95.”
Farm boy from Fargo
Morrow was born Aug. 10, 1923, on a half-section farm outside Fargo. Growing up, he watched his father, an honest, kind North Dakotan, tend the animals and work the land. When old enough, the younger Morrow herded cattle in town.
He loved detailed work, learning to reassemble a car engine and distributing rations to his unit of 3,500 people during World War II.
When he left the Army, his brother got him a soldering job at an eyeglasses company. Soon, his penchant for organizing inventory and running tight operations earned him a seven-year tenure as president of Minneapolis-based Walman Optical.
In 1981, the City of Minneapolis gave millions of dollars to businesses, including Walman Optical, to hire disadvantaged teenagers for summer jobs. But Morrow told the Minneapolis Tribune at the time that he’d had his own version of the program since the 1950s.
“We picked the ones who seemed to need the jobs the most,” he said then.
A quilting mission
Morrow is an unusual volunteer, said Jan Winstead, Bundles of Love’s work group leader in the western Twin Cities area (bundlesoflove.org). The Apple Valley-based volunteer organization sends supplies to needy families, usually selected by hospitals, across 23 Minnesota counties.
He’s the only male quilter she knows, and the only person who approaches the work so intensely.
That this process starts with seniors and ends with newborns isn’t lost on Winstead.
“It’s kind of like one generation giving themselves for the new generation,” she said.
Jackie said her husband’s dedication to quilting is amazing to see. But there are trade-offs to sharing him with the sewing machine.
“Sometimes, I miss a little bit of the company,” she said.
Morrow is getting tired, too. He says he’s looking forward to a break.
Winstead isn’t sure. Days after stitching baby blanket number 500, Morrow called her to say that one of his daughters asked him why he hadn’t made her one yet.
His hands are numb, his eyesight is going, and he just crossed the finish line in a yearslong journey.
But how could he say no?
Chris Bowling • 612-673-4434