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Aunt Dora & Her Well-Lived Life ~ Around The Frame

Grand Aunt Dora’s family crazy quilt includes patches from her father’s wedding vest and mother’s wedding dress.

When I went to Wayne High School in its very early years (Sept. 1972- May 1975), Nancy Keller Mack was the Latin teacher. I didn’t take Latin, preferring to take German with Herr Lowell Shearer. My Low-German speaking maternal grandparents spoke it a lot and I wanted to be able to converse with them when we visited their farm in New Knoxville, Ohio.

What I remember most about Mrs. Mack was the catapult competitions her Latin Club participated in against schools from all over the state. The catapult contest started from North Central HS. The Latin Club issued a proclamation calling clubs to defend themselves. The goal was to match Caesar’s distance, to throw a 10 lb. stone 100 ft. The contest grew and became The National Catapult Contest. The catapult machines were divided into classes roughly divided by source of power.

Wayne students built the world’s biggest ‘onager,’ the traditional machine powered by twisted rope. We used 3,000 ft of mountain climbing rope. The rope was threaded through 2 axles which are then turned to twist the rope. We only had one injury, a separated shoulder working the spanner. There were also bent wood and sling catapults. In our category, Wayne won the national championship from 1974 -1980.

Soon after I opened Born Again Quilts on South Wayne Avenue in 2012, she walked in, and I immediately recognized her. Nancy of course didn’t know me, but we quickly bonded over fabric and quilts and have become good friends. One day Nancy brought in a family quilt that has been hanging in her home and shared with me her Aunt Dora’s remarkable family history:

My Aunt Dora became the de facto matriarch of the Keller family. She and her four siblings were born on the Keller farm on the northwest side of South Bend, Indiana. One brother, Fredrick Keller (1872 – 1959) became the Mayor of South Bend and founded a construction/ realty company. One brother, my grandfather Ralph Keller (1882 – 1967), became the Surveyor of St. Joseph County. One sister Clara (? – 1951) the oldest, left the area to homestead in a sod hut on the prairie and the other sister, Harriet (1874 – 1953) stayed home to take care of their parents and her unmarried sister Dora (1878 – 1975).

Dora attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1904 with a degree in education. By 1968 when I graduated from UoM, she was its oldest living graduate. Dora returned to South Bend to teach at and head the English Department of South Bend Central High School from 1905- 1946. As Chair, she hired a young man to teach English, John Wooden. He left Indiana to coach very successfully at UCLA. Mr. Wooden never failed to visit her whenever he was in South Bend.

Aunt Dora never tired of traveling. On one trip to Italy, she saw Mussolini in a parade. She climbed Mt. Vesuvius wearing her sturdy lace-up black leather shoes and collected glass pieces. Her train trips around the US were frequent. My father often went to South Bend to accompany her for a visit to Fort Wayne. We would take her to the train station to wave her off as we stood on the tracks.

Though she was the matriarch of 20 nieces and nephews, we never heard a lecture on ‘the way it used to be.’ Instead, she asked about current affairs and seemed to value our opinions. Her connection to the past was in family antiques: furniture and glassware. The only time I remember her talking in detail about the past was when I asked about the embroidery on the family quilt that always laid on the old rope bed in her bedroom. In 1958 my Great Aunt (Grand Aunt she corrected me as she was my grandfather’s sister) while she described her valued family crazy quilt. The quilt’s variety of embroidery stitches had attracted my attention. We sat on her oak rope bed as she pointed to silk patches of her father’s wedding vest and cotton patches from her mother’s wedding dress. At the time, Aunt Dora was 80 years old, and I was 12. After her death in 1975, at 97 the quilt was given to me. Aunt Dora remembered seeing the quilt as a child, but no recollection of it being made. Crazy quilts became very popular in the mid-1870s at the time of the first centennial. Her death in South Bend, nearly 30 years after her retirement, moved many former students to write about her. The South Bend Tribune published an editorial on her inspiring teaching and positive influence on so many students. A life well lived! Thank-you Mrs. Mack for sharing your Grand Aunt’s life story! I’m sure her love of teaching catapulted you into following her footsteps in becoming a teacher!

On a current note, this May as many Hoosiers await the Indianapolis 500 with great anticipation, let’s take a moment to remember Jeanetta Holder who was born on the Indianapolis race day, May 30, 1932, and became the beloved “Quilt Lady” of Indianapolis Speedway. Jeanetta died on December 13, 2023, leaving behind a legacy that started back in 1976 when she presented Johnny Rutherford a hand-stitched red, white, and blue quilt after winning the race. Since then, she has presented more than forty more patchwork quilts to the Indy winners. As a stock car racing driver, Jeanetta wanted to give back to the drivers who brought her so much happiness by creating her quilted masterpieces for them. May she Quilt in Peace!

Lois Levihn is the owner of Born Again Quilts. If you have a quilt or another textile, you’d liked to be featured, contact her at bornagainquilts@frontier.com or 260-515-9446.

Lois Levihn

She is the author of the "Around the Frame" quilting column. She is a graduate of Wayne HS. Quilts have always been important to her, she loves the stories surrounding them, the techniques used in making them, & restoring them. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer