Don Stutzman’s hands could type 97 words a minute when he graduated as a stenographer in 1940. They helped build runways for the Air Force on the Pacific Front during World War II. They built and refurbished homes, including the one in Belmont he shared for decades with his wife of 69 years, Rosemary.
These days, the 94-year-old, a lifelong craftsman and carpenter, uses them to shape and glue layers of wood for decorative vases he gives to widows and the elderly, and it’s as much a love story as it is a labor of love.
“I started making them 20 years ago and gave them to my grandchildren and acquaintances,” he said. “It makes people happy. I give them to anybody I see who is hurting, especially older people and people who have lost their husbands. You wouldn’t believe how much hurt that will cause.”
Stutzman knows. His wife died two years ago, but photographs of her smiling are hung throughout his him and visible from where he works at his vases. One he won’t part with has a band of inset wooden strips around the middle – the vase he made for Rosemary.
“She loved everything I made,” he said, working in the woodshop garage near his home, a space he built as a workstation to finish their house.
Showing a half-assembled vase on a lathe his wife gave him, Stutzman explained how he creates.
With a dozen segments of wood – red oak, white ash, red maple and soft maple he harvests from the half-acre woods outside his home – he forms a layer, waits an hour for the glue to dry, sands and then adds another layer. It takes 10 rows to make a vase, he said, and each one is different.
When he recently asked a woman in a nursing home whether she’d added flowers to the vessel yet, she told him it won't be used for flowers.
“She said, ‘It’s a work of art on its own,’ ” Stutzman said, with a smile.
Stutzman has been building wooden art for years. His wall-hangings, of nature scenes or American Indian faces or anything else that inspired him, are pieces of wood, light and dark, formed into images he envisioned. He also built wooden model cars, mostly early 20th-century models, without kits or instructions. Instead, he studied pictures. He observed, the same way he learned to build and remodel homes.
Orphaned at 2, Stutzman's first career was as a typist. After he finished high school at an orphanage in Ohio, Stutzman worked for Gulf Oil Co. and eventually found his way back to where his family once lived: Johnstown. Soon after, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to enter the service – but fell in love and married before he left.
Stutzman carries a picture of his wife in his pocket, a ’40s-era beauty about 18 years old.
That was around the time he met Rosemary in a downtown Johnstown drugstore, where he went to buy a bag of cashews for a nickel.
“She was just as sweet as she was beautiful,” he said.
He dated Rosemary for about two weeks before he was to leave to study at Clemson University in South Carolina – part of his training to go overseas.
“I told her, ‘Come on down. We’ll get married,’ ” he said. “Down she came, right away.
“She might have said something right different, but she said yes.”
Don was overseas about 18 months, in Okinawa and Ieshima, Japan, part of the 19th Engineer Aviation Battalion, before he came back to Johnstown to find that jobs were scarce. Gradually, by observing, he learned to work as a carpenter and started building for families around town. He worked for two or three years before he was able to start on his family's house, which he built on a half acre he bought with a $5 deposit and $10 monthly payments until he had paid a $200 balance.
The couple raised two sons, Tommy and Danny, and became grandparents of four and great-grandparents of five. Tommy died at 21, and Don still finds it difficult to talk about. He talked about him as a baby, “a precious bundle” – and how the family had to band together to find a place to call home. Through his life, Don said he’s tried to remember that others may be struggling, so he acts with kindness.
He keeps two quotes typed on a small card in his pocket. On one side is a quote from Andy Rooney: “Being kind is more important than being right.”
On the other side is one from Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
“He belonged to no organized faith,” Don said. “He was extremely devout to his heavenly father. His parents were illiterate, and look what he became. He was the best-loved President in history.”