Dody Bartels of Lansing shares warm "hugs" one knitted scarf at a time

Dody Bartels, a Lansing native and current resident of Thornton Heights Assisted Living in her hometown, has been keeping family, friends and local residents warm one knitted scarf at a time for a number of years. At the age of 89, Bartels continues knitting scarves that she then gives away to designated individuals or for random strangers to pick up. Photo by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

As visitors entered Dody Bartels’ door at Thornton Heights Assisted Living in Lansing around the Valentine's holiday, they saw a door-size Valentine card that she puts up every year. On the card is a note “Ralph (her husband) bought this card for $1 in 1965”. Dody says, “I love it. I put it up every year. I’ll never get rid of it.”
Dody’s heart has to be nearly as big as the Valentine she places on her door. She has blended together a passion for knitting with a need to do something useful. During the past year, she has knitted more than 90 scarves which she gives away to anyone who would like one. The 89-year-old Bartels explains, “I want to be doing something useful. I don’t want to be useless. Knitting is something that relaxes me. Sometimes I knit until 11 o’clock at night. I might as well be making something that people can use.”
She has supplied residents of Thornton Manor, their kids and grandkids with scarves. Even the television repairman ended up leaving with two scarves for his kids. She puts them out on tables for people to pick up on their way out of the building.
Some communities have programs where people leave scarves on park benches and around poles for people who need them. Dody has them all beat by decades. She’s been giving her scarves away for years. Her  scarf knitting didn’t just start last year. Bartels says she has been knitting since college. She’s made scarves for all her relatives and just kept expanding.  She recalls, ‘I made scarves for all the kids at Sunday School. Each Sunday, I’d bring four more and the kids would pick out their favorite colors.”
She confesses that she used to have quite a stockpile of yarn but it’s dwindling down after this last year’s batch of scarves. Her niece, who proudly wears a multi-colored blue scarf, told her, “Every time I wear my scarf, it’s like a warm hug from you, Aunt Dody.”
If people have any spare yarn, they can put it to good use by dropping it off at Thornton Heights and giving it to Dody. She’ll know just what to do with it.
Bartels has been a lifelong resident of Lansing. Her father ran Kehr Hardware, which eventually became Bartels Hardware after her husband bought the business from him. In the 1940s, Dody went away to college to become a teacher. She laughs as she explained that the entire University of Dubuque was taken over by the Navy when she was there. Over 500 sailors were housed in the dorms.
Her husband wasn’t one of the sailors, though. She didn’t meet him until after the war when she was teaching kindergarten at Maynard. His family lived there. His mother sang in the church choir with Dody. After he got home from WW II, he came with his mother to choir.
One evening after practice, Dody was visiting with friends and talking about the need to go to Oelwein to pick up her sister from the train but she didn’t have a way to get there. She smiles, “This kind, gallant young gentleman in a uniform came over and said he had a car and he’d be happy to take me to pick up my sister.”
That was the beginning of their relationship. After a few years, they married  on his birthday. She laughs, "He wanted to get married on a date that he'd remember so he wouldn't forget our anniversary!"
They lived in a small trailer behind his mother’s house. “We didn’t have a bathroom so we had to go inside her house to use the bathroom. We didn’t have a lot of extras in those days.” After they got married, the school district wouldn’t renew her contract because they didn’t want any teachers who married home-town boys so they decided to move to Lansing, where Ralph began helping her dad at the hardware store.
They moved their little trailer here and parked behind her parents’ home. This time they had to go inside her parents’ house for the bathroom. They wanted to start a family, so that became the priority. Eventually, Dody’s grandmother agreed to move back to Lansing from Des Moines but didn’t want to live with any of her children. She would consider living with her granddaughter, though, if they had a house, so Dody and Ralph got a house and Grandma paid $25 a month rent to them, which was a big help to the young couple beginning a new family.
Soon, there were three children, two boys and a girl. After the kids were older, Dody wanted to go back to teaching and became a special education teacher at Lansing, teaching special education in the Eastern Allamakee Community School District for many years. Her younger son took over the Bartels Hardware Store from his father and worked there until his recent retirement.
Dody and her husband, Ralph, lived by what is now the high school football field. She explained, “It used to be a horse pasture. My kids and husband all loved horses and we could just look out the window and see them down there. When the district needed a space for a football field, it seemed like the ideal spot with its sloping hills. We’d sit on the hillside to watch the games.”
As her husband was dying, he made her promise that she would move into Thornton Manor so that he wouldn’t have to worry about her since she had suffered three strokes. She agreed, but after she recovered she moved to the assisted living section, where she happily knits away.
“I want to stay useful, not useless,“ she emphasizes.  And with each click of her needles, she continues to give each recipient a symbolic warm hug through her generous gift of a scarf.