Story by Mark Hertzberg
Judy Stapleman Kroes and her husband, Tom, slept under a quilt from J.C. Penney for the first 10 years of their marriage. She had time to make hundreds of quilts for other people, but, she says with a shrug, she was just too busy to make one for them.
Kroes, 60, estimates that she taught at least 2,000 students how to quilt before retiring in December of 2007, after teaching home economics at Walden Middle and High School in Racine for 33 years.
Teaching quilting was more than a job for her, it is her passion. She has also taught countless other people, “from 5 years old to 92 years old,” how to quilt. “I just love it. I still have my high school students coming over, and now it has reconnected me with my own high school friends. Belonging to quilting groups really brings women together, helps them make friendships, deal with those things they are going through in their retirement years.”
She was known for honoring each of her retiring colleagues at Walden with a quilt. The retirees would tell her what colors they wanted in their “Judy Quilt.” She makes Judy Quilts for former colleagues who are retiring even now, five years after she left Walden. Her own retirement quilt was a gift to her made with quilt squares from students, staff and friends.
Kroes has made quilts for friends, colleagues and relatives, as well as for babies at Children’s Hospital and for clients of the HALO shelter for homeless people. Her students made quilts for the children of inmates at the Robert Ellsworth Correctional Facility, a women’s prison near Union Grove. She has also helped get fabric for inmates who quilt. “I think it’s wonderful for young women to learn to give back to the community while being incarcerated.”
She started to quilt 20 years ago after Vicki Madsen, a friend and Walden parent, came to her class to demonstrate quilting to her students. “I was hooked.”
Kroes now belongs to four quilting groups, including Racine’s Lighthouse Quilters, the Franklin Friendly Quilters, the OCDers, and the Wednesday Wanna Bes (Wanna Be Quilting). “I think these groups keep us young, constantly designing things.” She says that her 92-year-old quilting companion considers the group’s meeting the highlight of her month, giving her a chance to be with friends and learn new techniques.
She taught both boys and girls how to quilt at Walden. She estimates that at least a third of the students she taught to sew quilts were boys, but her quilting friends are women. Few men quilt, she says, because they were not taught to sew. She thinks that women bond with quilting groups and quilting camps the way men bond hunting, fishing, or going to sports events. Her quilting groups may not be diverse in gender, but they are ethnically diverse. There is also a variety of ages, she says, but, at age 60, she says she is one of the youngest members in some of those groups.
It is surprisingly not hard for Kroes to give away a quilt that may have taken from 24-40 hours to make. “You have to have the attitude that you made it for them and when it leaves, it’s theirs. I always take a picture (of the quilt).”
She knows that some people get frustrated by the time it takes to quilt, so she looks for faster and easier ways for people to work. “I learned, in teaching 11- to-18-year-olds, that if you make it fun, fast and enjoyable, they have such a sense of fulfillment when it’s done. They are so happy when they’ve created something.”
If people in her large circle of quilting acquaintances aren’t sure how to do something when they are quilting, she says, they invariably are given two words of advice, “Ask Judy.”
Quilting is a way for Kroes to give special gifts to people, “Right now I am finishing a quilt for a daughter of a friend who passed away and didn’t get to finish it herself. She was a lady I helped design quilts with.”
One of her quilting clubs challenged members to make a list of unfinished quilting projects. The members’ goal is to complete them, pay $1 for each one completed, and then be entered into a drawing for the money. “I make them, but don’t necessarily quilt them until I’m going to give them away. I have over 88 projects on my list that I made that are just not completed.” She has contributed $8 to the prize fund, “Last month I finished three quilts, and this month I finished five quilts. I go to my stash (of fabric) and pick out colors I like, and I go to my binders and pick a pattern I’ve always wanted to make.”
Kroes’ daughter-in-law has said that she would like to have four children. Kroes will be ready when they are born. “My husband is laughing at me, because I am sewing for my grandchildren who do not exist!” She has already made four snowman quilts for those future grandchildren.
As for the quilt she finally made for her and Tom, she also designed a headboard for the bed with three quilt pieces inset into the ash headboard.
While it took Judy 10 years to get around to making the quilt, Tom needed only eight hours to build the headboard with his brother, Gary.
Now Judy and Tom can sleep like they deserve to sleep, under a Judy Quilt instead of under a store-bought quilt that was made in a factory.