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  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Knitting materials and completed projects typically surround 101-year-old Polly Kenick as she continues to enjoy the hobby she learned in third grade. She holds up a newly-finished baby sweater.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    This knit helmet liner, which also serves as a cold-weather cap, is one of dozens made by 101-year-old Polly Kenick for Pease Greeters, the soldier support group that meets incoming and outgoing military planes in Portsmouth.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Both ongoing and completed projects surround Polly Kenick in her recliner, where she knits by the hour to create all kinds of items for people from premarture babies to military soldiers. Now 101, Kenick has been knitting since the third grade--more than 90 years.
  • They sort of resemble Sesame Street characters, but these little items are "bookworms" that Polly Kenick knits for fourth-graders she visits at Lyndeborough Center School. "They love 'em," she says.
Sunday, February 20, 2011

101-year-old has been knitting for more than 92 years

Grade school lessons were taught a bit differently back when little Pauline Fifield trekked to and from Amherst Street Elementary School.

While the three R’s were, of course, central to every teacher’s daily lesson plan, Pauline’s third-grade teacher – Nashua’s legendary Miss Alice Trow – was also a strong believer in the benefits of outside-the-book learning.

“She taught us to knit,” recalled Pauline, today a remarkably robust, active 101-year-old Polly Kenick. “We started out making little squares. When we were done, the teacher sewed them all together.”

Trow had a purpose beyond teaching her pupils a new skill: Most of what they knitted that fall went to help American soldiers fighting on battlegrounds thousands of miles away in what was then known as the Great War.

Indeed, Kenick, born in Hudson in November 1909 and raised in Nashua before moving to Exeter for a career as a nurse, knitted her first rows – using a pair of barn spikes her father honed down as best he could to resemble knitting needles – while the war that was supposed to end all wars still raged in Europe.

“It was just before the armistice,” Kenick said. “We started (knitting) in September, then the armistice came that November.”

By the numbers, that means Kenick, whose papers-and-scrapbook database takes up most of her cozy Wilton apartment and gives her plenty to work on these days, has been knitting pretty much nonstop for 921⁄2 years.

Daughter Lois, a retired Milford teacher, is a daily visitor these days, helping her mom with morning things such as breakfast, coordinating doctor appointments and tending to general household chores. The two often work together on Kenick’s family history, the highlight of which is her typewritten autobiography, a work in progress that promises to infatuate even the casual historian.

A bright sun illuminated Kenick’s already luminous smile as she sorted bundles of green and white yarn in her favorite recliner by the window.

“I’ve got to go over to Lyndeborough this week. A Girl Scout troop wants to learn how to knit,” Kenick explained to an incredulous visitor who couldn’t help but ask the obvious: “You mean you still go out and teach knitting classes?”

“Oh, I don’t really teach,” Kenick replied. “I can show you how to do it, but I’m no teacher.”

When she isn’t teaching – rather, showing others how it’s done – Kenick fills many an hour doing precisely what she did way back in Miss Trow’s third grade: knitting items for soldiers. These days, her chief labor of love is making helmet liners, small caps that soldiers can wear under their helmet or by itself when weather turns cold.

Kenick is among a network of volunteer knitters making the helmet liners, which are collected and sent to the Pease Greeters, the volunteer initiative dedicated to welcoming U.S. troops passing through Pease International Airport on their way to, or from, the Middle East and other areas where U.S. troops are deployed.

Along with the support, including food, toys for their children and other items, Pease Greeters put a helmet liner on each seat of planes coming and going, Lois Kenick said.

The military is just one of many factions that benefits from Polly Kenick’s lifelong hobby. At holiday time, she knits buttoned “hangers” to which she attaches towels, making a cute, functional item to dress up kitchens and bathrooms.

Each year, she donates another dozen or so to the Lyndeborough volunteer firefighters, who sell them at their annual fall festival and benefit from the proceeds.

“I used to bake them pies, but they don’t bring them as much money,” Kenick said. “And they don’t last as long, either.”

What about sweaters? Does she knit many of them?

“Well,” Lois chimed in, producing a handsome sweater with buttons. “She made, oh, about 40 of these,” she said, as matter-of-fact as anything. “As for these, I don’t know how many … gazillions,” she laughed, holding up another, smaller style of sweater.

Then there are the caps that, except for their size and colors, look something like the helmet liners.

They’re called “preemie caps,” Kenick explained, showing the tiniest of the tiny ovals that she donates to hospitals and clinics. Mostly blue and pink, the slightly larger ones are for larger babies, she said.

Even many of the literally dozens of stuffed animals, mostly bears, that share Kenick’s apartment wear sweaters and caps, most of them created out of leftover remnants, or “squares,” from projects. Although inanimate, the little bears are quite generous – none has ever balked at giving up his or her sweater or cap when a baby or toddler has an urgent need.

Larger squares often become afghans, usually stitched while Kenick watches one of the few TV shows she has any use for.

“Oh, the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ I like a lot,” she said. “Sometimes I watch ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ and ‘Jeopardy!’ is very good.”

That’s all?

“Only things that are on 2 or 11,” she insists, referring to this market’s top two PBS affiliates. “All the rest is junk. I’d go crazy if I had to watch that box all day.”

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Kenick said suddenly, reaching for a good-sized round basket. “I have a group of fourth-graders up at the Center School I go see now and then,” she explained, referring to Lyndeborough’s elementary school.

“I show them how to make these – they’re bookworms,” Kenick said with a big smile.

“They always ask me what school was like in my day. They can’t believe there were no school buses. I told them we used to walk everywhere back then. I don’t think many of them liked the thought of that.”

While she’s able to get places now and then, with help from Lois and a couple others, Kenick feels she’s able to do the most good by working right from her favorite recliner.

“I can’t go all over the place and volunteer anymore,” she said. “But there’s always something you can do.

“You do what you can. This is what I can do.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.