Bluegrass Area Development District
Contact: Lydia Jacobs, Bluegrass Area Development District, firstname.lastname@example.org
93–year-old volunteer Nancy Wilson is faithful to her sewing — and her service;
find her every day at the Franklin County Senior Activity Center
Nancy Wilson leans over her work. She measures again, adds another stitch after a small adjustment, then ties off her thread and efficiently snips away the excess. She folds the completed project carefully, and reaches for the next piece of material. It’s a basic hemline alteration. She moves toward the machine – a Janome. It’s her favorite from home. She’s been sewing on it for years and it seems only natural that she brought it here, to the Franklin County Senior Activity Center.
With steady hands, she threads the needle, then pushes the thread away from her before she slides the material between the pressure foot and the small silver strike plate. She has been sewing long enough to know the thread can get pulled back down into the bowels of the machine and slow down her operation.
She has also been giving long enough to know that every project she completes will benefit more than just the person who needs an alteration or a repair.
“I just like to do things for people,” she says after she sews a straight stitch on the machine. “And that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve put things together.”
Wilson sews for a bit longer. She’s been here since 7:30 this morning and won’t leave until around 1 this afternoon. Sewing and giving. Two of the greatest character traits she brought with her from her early beginnings in Estill County.
Threading the Needle
In 1922, a man from Iowa patented the first Eskimo Pie. Annie Oakley set the first women’s record for breaking 100 clay targets in a row. The US Navy commissioned their first aircraft carrier. Marconi’s dream of long-distance radio transmission spread across America. The Cubs beat the Phillies and the Bluegrass celebrated the running of the 48th Kentucky Derby.
And on January 14, in Estill County, on a small road called Doe Creek, the world welcomed a baby girl named Nancy.
Wilson was born the third out of six children. She grew up learning the ways of a farmer, immersed in corn and cattle. In her thirteenth year, Wilson learned to sew. She recalls earning money from babysitting, using that money to buy some fabric and then asking her mother for help.
“My mom was busy, she had six kids and she didn’t have time to fool with me. I kept whining for that dress, so she sat me down at the machine and she said if you want a dress, you make it,” Wilson says and laughs. “Well, I did. I don’t remember what it looked like, but I wore it. I guess it was all right because I didn’t get arrested.”
In Wilson’s early days, she received many hand-me-downs from her older siblings, who were also girls. It was the desire of her heart to have a new dress all her own to wear to church. She remembers it was summer, as they didn’t have the wherewithal to walk a great distance to church in winter. She also remembers she didn’t have a pattern, so she had to make it up as she went along.
Wilson pauses and presses her hands together, then folds them on her knees. She tells of leaving home at the tender age of fifteen because there just wasn’t anything to do at home. At the time she left, she had but an eighth grade education. In the next few years, she put her hands to work at many things: babysitting, working at the local theater in Irvine, as well as housekeeping at the River View Hotel. She even tried her hand at sewing again, this time at the Carhartt Factory.
“I did the buttonholes by hand then. There were five buttonholes on each fly,” she explains and works her hands in the air to demonstrate what she once did. “If we made a mistake, we had to take the stitches out.”
In 1942, she married Maurice June Wilson, who once worked as a bellboy at the Irvine hotel. It wasn’t too long after that the couple moved to Ashland, where the Wilsons raised their three children. Maurice worked in heavy machinery at Armco, and Wilson again picked up her needle and her scissors to keep putting good things together.
Wilson served for 36 years at the Ashland Crafts Sewing Factory. She started out on the sewing machines, but eventually moved up to ‘floor lady’, supervising at least a hundred women. The factory made intricate Cinderella dresses that were popular with the elite society in New York.
While there in Ashland, Wilson realized a dream at last – she received her GED and completed her high school education. At that point, Wilson was well into her 60s, and even took a semester of classes at Ashland Community College.
In 2006, she lost her partner, friend and husband. Her daughters, Wanda and Ginny, both of which had moved to Frankfort at that time, were happy to receive her.
“When I came here to Frankfort, I had to have something to do. My mom always used to say I was fidgety,” she says and flutters her hands in the air. “I just couldn’t sit around the house all day and do nothing, so I ended up here.”
When Wilson walked into the craft room at the Franklin County Senior Activity Center in 2006, she felt like she had come home.
“I started volunteering immediately, I started here in this room,” she lifts her hands and looks about her. Along the walls and on tables, hundreds of yards of fabric wrap around bolts. Spools of thread hang on pegs, color-coordinated, on the back wall. The wall hangings showcase a lighthouse, a majestic lion, a pair of horses grazing behind a cross-tie fence – all are hand-pieced works of art that have won ribbons and awards.
Wilson lives with one daughter, Ginny, who teaches at UK. She is picked up every morning by Wanda, her other daughter, who also lives in Frankfort. Wanda fixes her breakfast, then drives her to the senior center. While Wilson works on repairs or alterations, Wanda usually reads a book or visits with people who come into the craft room. At around 1 or so, the duo heads back home.
While Wilson charges nominal fees for alterations, she is generous with her income, investing the money back into the senior center. To date, Wilson averages about $10,000 a year, which means the center has benefitted over $90,000 from Wilson’s expertise and generosity.
“I don’t want for anything so I don’t need the money,” she says of the donations. “I just like being with people.”
She likes it so much that others notice.
Lydia Jacobs with the Bluegrass Area Development District/Bluegrass Area Agency on Aging & Independent Living has noticed.
“Senior Centers in the seventeen-county Bluegrass region rely heavily on volunteers. Mrs. Wilson is a top-notch volunteer who gives to the center in so many ways. She is known by everyone, provides friendly banter and good-hearted advice to many, and is a much appreciated and loved fixture at the center.”
Marchele Jenkins remembers meeting Wilson for the first time a few years ago. Jenkins is the senior center director.
“When you come here, everyone says to go to the craft room. You walk up, see her plaque on the door. It’s Nancy Wilson’s craft room,” Jenkins says and nods to the older woman. “Then I came in and I heard her story. I tell her all the time, when I grow up I want to grow up to be just like you.”
Wilson grins and shakes her head. She’s modest and self-deprecating in a way that is endearing and true. She chuckles at Jenkins’ response.
“She’s in here every day, doing, sewing and working with people,” Jenkins says. “I wish kids now could come in here and just be exposed to her work ethic.”
Organizations are also taking note. Wilson was nominated for and won Kentucky’s Department for Aging and Independent Living Volunteer of the Year award earlier this year. The etched glass award sits atop a table filled with fabrics and notions, next to a cheery bunch of flowers.
Wilson heads back to her sewing machine, checks her next project, and prepares for another set of strong, fine stitches.
“I know what hard work is and I try to put that in my practice,” she says. “I’m an honest person. If I tell you something, it’s true. I don’t play with your mind and if you need something done, I’m happy to do it.”
She nods, then turns her full attention to the Janome. She moves the lever so that the pressure foot holds the material in place, depresses the foot control and the sewing begins again. All of her years of stiches and service, pieced together at last.
Kristy Horine is a freelance writer based in Paris, Ky. She wrote this story for BGADD.