Retired professor combats boredom with knitting needles

Entering Ellis Jones’ apartment in St. Peter is akin to walking into a  knitting exhibit. There are yellow shawls enhancing tables of darker wood, with shawls of darker colors offering a counterpoint to blond furniture. Couch throws and other examples of the knitting hobby attest to the 87-year-old Jones’ productive talent. Examples meet the eye at every level. Although Jones is right handed, he holds the needles opposite of the way right-handed knitters hold them. The reason is, he said, “My mother was left handed.”

Ellis Jones of St. Peter learned to knit as a kid from his mother. After a 50-year hiatus during his working years, Jones is back at it. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

One might ask how this Cambria farm boy, who became a professor of economics and management at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, became an expert knitter, earning blue ribbons for his work. The answer, of course, is his mother’s influence.

“One Christmas, when I was in grade school, Santa Claus brought me a skein of multi-colored yarn and knitting needles,” Jones said. “It was my mother’s plan to teach me to knit. She was left handed, and I learned to hold the needles the way she did.” It wasn’t particularly difficult because, he said, “There are only two stitches–knitting and purling. All other stitches are based on them.” He recalled his youthful knitting endeavors were “very simple squares, because I was busy with farm work and milking cows.”

Jones continued his hobby throughout his years as a student at New Ulm High School, returning to it a half century later, in his retirement years. He explained, “I stopped knitting in the early ’50s. It was all (needles and yarn) in a bag”–a bag of supplies that would be brought out more than 50 years later as an antidote for boredom.

In 1952, Jones earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in business education from Gustavus Adolphus College. When he was unable to find a job after graduation, his 1-A draft status resulted in his becoming a soldier during the Korean War.

Jones said, “It was ironic that in basic training I learned to be a tank driver, although I have no mechanical ability.” His business background was applied, however, when he was assigned as secretary to the commanding general of the Third  Armored Division at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

After his discharge in 1954, Jones married his wife, Janet, whom he had met in a shorthand class at Gustavus, where students dictated to one another in small groups. He also enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in business education. He explained, “My division general in the army had a Ph.D. in economics, which was unusual for a commanding general, a ‘blood and guts’ type. He suggested that I get a master’s degree. I was eligible for the GI Bill for education, which provided free tuition to military veterans.”

Ellis Jones’ wall hanging with rows of colors: USA, Wales (his heritage), and Sweden and Norway (his late wife’s heritage).
Photo by Carlienne Frisch

After receiving his Master’s degree in 1955, Jones taught at Plainview High School, near Rochester, where, he said, “I was the business department, teaching six classes.”  He went back to college every summer because he had to indicate he was working on a Ph.D. to keep his GI Bill from expiring. In July 1957, a casual conversation during summer school led to his applying for a teaching position at Gustavus Adolphus College, and being hired. He also continued his studies, earning his Doctor of Education degree from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, in 1965.

The Joneses moved to St. Peter in 1958, where he taught business and economics classes and she worked at the college library and later at an accounting firm. He commented, “She was a superb secretary.”

For 22 years, Jones took on additional responsibility as the part-time executive secretary of Delta Pi Epsilon, a professional business organization. He said, “The national headquarters were in the basement of our home. My wife was the office administrator.” He also served 13 years as the secretary of the Gustavus faculty, taking minutes in shorthand, and was an associate dean for two seven-year terms. After retiring from his responsibilities with Delta Pi Epsilon in 1987 and from the Gustavus faculty in 1998, Jones became active in the Welsh North American Association and still meets with the group annually.

When the Joneses moved to an apartment in St. Peter in 2007, he brought along his bag of yarn and needles. Four years later, a health issue led him to return to his childhood hobby. Jones explained, “In 2011, I had abdominal surgery that resulted in complications and daily nurse visits. I was mostly apartment bound for four weeks. I got bored watching TV, and you can read only so much. I still had yarn and needles, and I found it kind of fun to resume knitting. I made baby caps for our 3-month-old twin granddaughters, and then just kept on knitting. After my wife died in April 2013, knitting became therapeutic and was of much help to me.”

Soon after his wife’s death, Jones spent time in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the home of a friend who wouldn’t allow Jones to pay for anything during the visit. Jones said, “I wondered how to thank him, and I figured out that a table cover of red and white squares for his coffee table would surprise him. Later, I thought ‘that wasn’t so difficult to make,’ so I thought maybe I should make more in the colors of Gustavus Adolphus College, black and gold, and then make things for my children and all of the grandchildren.”

Ellis Jones coaches friend Nancy Sullivan, a longtime knitter, how to knit lefthanded. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Jones enjoys knitting items such as lap robes and mailing them as a surprise to people he has known for years, people who are special to him, commenting, “These people are stunned.” He keeps a notebook of what he has made over the years and has a folder of “thank you” notes. He also has knitted prayer shawls, which are distributed by his church on Mother’s Day. He has knitted throws for fundraising silent auctions and has entered his work in county fairs, earning a first premium blue ribbon at the Nicollet County Fair in 2013. He points out that he’s somewhat following in the footsteps of NFL great Roosevelt Grier, who does embroidery and has published a book about needlework for men.

“I’ve made more than 85 lap robes for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, other relatives, college friends and others,” Jones said. “The design of each robe is my own, and I find that I continue to look forward to completing each one to give to someone as a surprise.”

Jones creates his own patterns, drawing a grid of each item before he puts needles to yarn. He explained the math: “There are 48 squares in a couch throw, 740 stitches in each square–that’s 20 stitches times 37 rows. An afghan has approximately 35,520 stitches.” He computed that he has made 3,019,200 stitches.

He currently is knitting what he calls a “Red, White, Blue, and People” afghan. He said, “There are four squares in each unit–a red square, a white square, a blue square–and the fourth square of each unit will vary–black, brown, yellow or white, representing Minnesota’s diverse population.” He hasn’t decided whether to keep the afghan or to donate it to a silent auction.