Story and photos Mark Hertzberg

Many people find it hard to let go of work when they retire. David Bidstrup did not.

When he retired in 1989 after 28 years as director of buildings and grounds for the Racine Unified School District, he wanted to do something completely different from his job. He had helped supervise construction of many of Racine’s schools, including Case High School, Gilmore Middle School and Giese Elementary School. He was so busy at work, he had no time for hobbies.

Today he sits at the beige 1965 Montgomery Ward Signature sewing machine in his basement guest room, sewing and assembling quilt squares. He creates them for the Sew ‘n Sews quilting group at Racine’s Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and for the Lutheran World Relief agency. Each quilt top takes about six hours to make. He completed his 500th one in early November.

He joined the Unified School District when it was formed in 1961. He had left Racine to attend Dana College in Blair, Neb. Joining the school district was a homecoming, and not just because he had returned to Racine. His new boss, Suptintendent John Prasch, had been his coach when he ran track at Park High School.

Sewing was Bidstrup’s second post-retirement avocation. His first hobby after retirement was carpentry. He walked through the school district’s carpenter shop every day. “I looked at that. It looked interesting to me. I decided that’s what I would do, woodworking, make some furniture, stuff like that.”

He bought a lathe before retiring and set up shop in his West Racine home. He made candlesticks, lamps and even furniture for his three children. He and his wife, Betty, would bring things he had made to Racine’s annual summer Starving Artists fair. “One year we went with a hundred pieces. We came back with one.”

Health had never been a problem for Bidstrup until 2000. He had quadruple bypass surgery in April. In August he had a kidney transplant. His daughter, Karen Gueldenzopf, was the donor. Lung problems, including asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, followed.

He was told to be careful working around sawdust. He found it hard to work with a mask on, and gave up woodworking. He sold his carpentry equipment and looked for another avocation.

Recovery was not quick. It was six years before he was well enough to think of finding another hobby. Betty remembers, “We spent a lot of time putting (jig saw) puzzles together, over 200 puzzles.” Indeed, there is a stack of puzzle boxes in the house, and one puzzle is in progress on the table.

The Bidstrups read in the church bulletin in 2006 that the Sew ’n Sews needed someone to sew for them. The sewing group was making quilts that would be distributed by the Lutheran World Relief agency. Betty told David, “I bet you could do that at home.” Sewing was not completely new to him. His and Betty’s mothers were seamstresses, and her father was a tailor. His mother made draperies for Porter’s furniture store in their West Racine home when he was in junior high school.

Fabric, often from rummage sales, is furnished to him. He irons and cuts the fabrics, and then sews the squares together. The quilts are finished by the Sew ’n Sews at the church. They are distributed worldwide, wherever tragedy has struck or where there is a need, says Bidstrup. The agency responded to the 2010 Haitian earthquake and will likely distribute quilts to victims of the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

Although his quilting efforts were initially for people served by the relief agency, his talent now helps people in Racine. Some of the quilts are donated to HALO, Racine’s Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization, and a few to furnish rooms in homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

Perhaps his biggest challenge sewing was to make sure the corners of the quilt pieces were perfectly square. He used the same ingenuity to solve that problem that he did to solve problems in his work with the school district. A simple solution from his breakfast solved his vexing problem. He cut the front panel off a Multi Grain Cheerios cereal box and uses that to square the corners.

The Bidstrups have five grandchildren. It is easy to imagine each one snuggling to sleep under a grandpa quilt. But there are no grandpa quilts in the family. Betty and he own just one of the quilts he worked on. Two years ago his quilting companions insist that the Bidstrups keep one he was particularly fond of. It is decorated with a Christmas theme.

Bidstrup never knows who gets the quilts he works on. All of his quilts go to HALO, Habitat for Humanity or Lutheran World Relief. The ones for Lutheran World Relief are loaded into a railroad boxcar in Sturtevant every October. Then it is time to start sewing for the following October.

Betty is glad David has found a hobby at their old sewing machine.

“It would drive both of us batty, I think, if he didn’t have this hobby. He goes down every day for a couple of hours.” When asked, she says she does not worry that the women in the church sewing group will steal him from her. She knows, though, how much they like his work. “They know it will be done well, and they like the color combinations.”