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Quilt of Valor

Navy vet and dinosaur guy wrapped in honor

SOLON– Jack Neuzil and his wife Fran were wrapped in his new Quilt of Valor, standing in front of a crowd in the lobby of the Solon Center for the Arts.
“You don’t know how important this is,” Neuzil quipped. “Up until recently I used to do a lot of projects. They kept me warm.
“I haven’t been able to do them for the last year, and this is going to save me.””
Neuzil, a longtime contributor to a vast number of Solon community projects and best known for his wooden dinosaurs, was presented his Quilt of Valor at a ceremony March 25.
Neuzil’s quilt was the National Honor Society (NHS) project of Solon High School senior Nicole Breese.
“Going into NHS, I knew I wanted to do a Quilt of Valor,” Breese said during the ceremony. She started quilting with her grandmother about five years ago, she told the audience, and was encouraged by a recent mentor.
But she didn’t know who the quilt would be for.
A member of the Solon High School Band, Breese was performing at the annual Solon Memorial Day Service last year. During the program, she discovered Neuzil was a veteran, and she had found her recipient.
“Jack has been a huge part of this community,” she said. “I remember back in kindergarten and first grade; he was the dinosaur man.”
She also recalled his involvement with the building of the Timber DOME Lodge at the Solon Recreation and Nature Area.
It took about 150 hours to make the quilt, she said.
Over the last 15 years, the Quilts of Valor (QOV) Foundation presented nearly 183,000 quilts to veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
According to Elayne Gassett, Iowa longarm coordinator, Quilt of Valor started in 2003, when QOV founder Catherine Roberts’ son came home with news he had been deployed to Iraq. Roberts subsequently had a dream of a veteran sitting on the side of his bed, alone and miserable.
“She woke up the next morning and she said ‘I know what I can do,’” Gassett said. “I can make a quilt. Everybody knows how wonderful a quilt feels. You just cuddle up in that quilt, it brings warmth, you think of home.”
A lot of organizations make quilts for veterans, she said, but QOV has a standard of excellence which requires the quilts to be 100 percent cotton, longarm quilted and at least 60 inches by 80 inches in size.
Nominations for quilts can be made online, and are assigned to local coordinators, who contact the person making the nomination to check eligibility and branch of service.
As longarm coordinator, Gassett connects people who have made quilt tops, with others in their area, with longarm quilting machines, required to stitch the top to the batting and backing for a finished quilt.
“We actually wrap that quilt around their shoulders and give them a hug and say ‘Thank you for your service,’” Gassett said.
Jerry Green, QOV coordinator for Linn County and surrounding areas, said 142 quilts were awarded locally last year, with 90 veterans on the list at any given time.
“So we don’t usually run out of names,” Green said.
A 20-year veteran, Green said he became involved with the organization after he received a Quilt of Valor with his father-in-law, a World War II veteran.
“It’s very, very rewarding,” Green said. “And it allows me the opportunity to give back and recognize and thank our veterans.”
The strictly volunteer organization does a lot of coordinating, he said, but the real work is behind the scenes– people who make donations of money or material and people who donate their time to make the quilts.
“We would love to be quilts for all veterans, I’m not sure we have enough material,” Green said. “We certainly know they are all deserving.”
Each quilt comes with a certificate and a pillow case so the quilt can be taken along in a pickup or on a fishing trip.
“I do not know of a Quilt of Valor anywhere in this country that is in a linen closet,” Gassett said. “These guys use these quilts. The quilts go wherever the vets go.”
Near the end of the ceremony, wrapped in his quilt, Neuzil reflected on the honor.
“I was very fortunate to actually have been in the service,” Neuzil said. “That was an honor in itself. Because I got to go places and see people that I’m sure had an effect on my life. I found out what the rest of the world was like. It’s not just a cornfield in Iowa.”
Neuzil was attending Northern Illinois Teachers’ College, in Dekalb, Ill., during the early years of the Korean Conflict, when the draft board notified him he would be joining the Army as soon as his schooling was complete.
He instead signed up for Officer’s Candidate School in the U.S. Navy and served three years as an Engineering Officer on a Landing Ship Tank.
His first assignment took him to Indochina, now Vietnam, helping ferry people running for freedom from the north to the south.
“My ship was the last one to leave North Vietnam,” Neuzil said. “It was Indochina and the next day we were above the 38th Parallel and we had to get out of there because it was taken over by the Communists.”
He stayed in the Far East for the remainder of his time in the military.
“I really didn’t do very much, not like a lot of the other people,” Neuzil told the crowd. “I just don’t deserve this, but it’s wonderful.”
After his service, he returned to graduate school to earn his master’s degree in education at Northern Colorado, and began his teaching career, which included 25 years at Kirkwood Community College.
Neuzil served on the Solon Public Library Board, the Johnson County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Lake Macbride Watershed Committee, and was named Solon’s Outstanding Senior for 2006.
Neuzil picked up his woodworking skills working in a two-man cabinet shop, in Iowa City, as a young man. He crafted the altar, the Stations of the Cross and another wooden cross for St. Mary Catholic Church, helped make the handcrafted trim and the circulation desk for the Solon library, and constructed about 200 dinosaurs which were used educationally for decades.
“The last 25 years, I didn’t have a job, so I built some wooden dinosaurs,” he said.
Taking inspiration from watching his great-nieces cut dinosaur figures out of cardboard, he made three of his own out of wood for them. His sister Martha, who worked at the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton, suggested her vision-impaired students might benefit from dinosaur figures they could touch and handle, so Neuzil made about 25 more.
When the Braille school was done with the dinosaurs, they were taken in by the Solon library and Neuzil began receiving requests to appear before elementary-aged students to talk about dinosaurs.
It forced him to learn the subject, and it sparked another hobby.
“I got to meet all of the most famous dinosaur guys in the world,” Neuzil noted.
He has spent time with Tyrannosaurus Sue’s discoverer Pete Larson, and Canadian paleontologist and museum founder Philip Currie, who has three of Neuzil’s wooden dinosaurs in his home.
Originally, he said, he thought he was doing it for the students who listened raptly to his tales. But he eventually realized he was doing it for himself.
“Because I could see how they reacted, and if I could get them to read one book, I was successful,” he said. “Reading, reading, because that’s how you learn.
“You cannot learn without interest. And if you can get somebody interested in something, even if it’s a dinosaur, they will learn. And that’s what it’s all about.”