Patrick Murphy
Freelance Writer
May 2, 2017 // Special

Centenarian’s hobby benefits Coats for Kids program

Patrick Murphy
Freelance Writer

For almost a century, Jo Russo has been fascinated by needlework.

As a youngster in Bristol, R.I., she remembers being mesmerized by two neighbor ladies who knitted and crocheted on a front porch, talking about happenings in their scenic seaport town, or possibly about Prohibition and the evils of alcohol.

Using lollipop sticks for hooks and string instead of yarn, the youngster, one of five in an Italian family, developed a hobby that has intrigued her for almost nine decades. As she approaches her 104th birthday she continues to enjoy that hobby, which for the last several years has been to the benefit of needy children.

Russo knits scarfs — lots and lots of them — to be distributed by the Christ Child Society’s annual Coats for Kids program. Coats for Kids is one of the programs the national society has sponsored ever since a chapter was established in Fort Wayne in 1997; other programs include distributing layettes for expectant or new mothers, providing backpacks with toiletries and other essentials to children in crisis situations, parenting and counseling for mothers-to-be and tutoring for young students.

“They bring me the yarn,” said Russo, “and I make the scarfs.”

Knitting has been Jo Russo’s on-again, off-again hobby since she was a child. Now she enjoys the pastime to the benefit of Christ Child Society’s Coats for Kids program, which gives the scarves knitted by the 103-year-old to needy Fort Wayne-area children.

Needlework wasn’t the only interest of the youngster, growing up in Bristol. She eventually noticed Jerry Russo, a good-look and friendly young man in the neighborhood. “We married early,” she said, “and our early life was happy.” Russo then began to crochet hats, scarfs and other items for the immediate family and close friends.

Circumstances in Rhode Island were not particularly bad, she remembered. But her husband yearned for a better life for his growing family, and shortly after the end of World War II the family became one of many attracted to higher paying jobs in the Midwest. They moved to Fort Wayne after Jerry was recruited by the Phelps Dodge Corp.

After settling in, and although her husband’s wages were adequate, Russo decided she wanted to expand her horizons. “I didn’t have to work,” she said during a recent interview at Woodview Health Care facility. “But I wanted to meet new people.” She went to work first at a tailoring company, then at a ladies’ dress-making facility, where she made money doing something she enjoyed.

Although she engaged in her hobby less often, Russo never forgot the pleasure of crocheting. Years later she retired and her husband died, and she again took it up. “I just enjoy crocheting,” she said.

It was a friend from her family’s former North Sherwood Terrace home who belonged to the Christ Child Society and linked Russo up with Coats for Kids. “I saw how well she crocheted,” said Mona Penisten, and she realized her friend could really help youngsters.

Since learning of the coat program Russo has crocheted as many as 300 scarfs in a year.

A few months ago, she fell ill — too ill to continue with her hobby — and didn’t couch a hook for a while. Then one day when she felt better, Russo picked up a skein. “It felt good,” she said, “so I started up again.”

She doesn’t know how long she will be able to keep going, or how strong she will remain. She has outlived two of her four children; her remaining son resides in North Carolina, and a daughter is living in the North Sherwood Terrace home. Russo remains a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish and often receives Communion during visits from Father Fernando Polycarp. She also enjoys watching some soap operas on television. She isn’t sure how she’ll observe her upcoming 104th birthday, or how she’ll commemorate the milestone — except maybe to crochet another scarf.



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