Note: This continuing series will repost some of the most memorable columns of Suzy’s Fancy, which ran from 2009-2020. This piece originally ran in 2009.
When Russell Shinn graduated from high school in the small southwestern Oklahoma town of Carnegie in 1933, his mother, Ora Francis Clark Shinn, made a quilt to commemorate the event.
There was no high school near their farm on Cedar Creek—the one-room school called Silver Moon that served the area’s children taught students only as far as the eighth grade—so Russell had to move seven miles away to Carnegie to further his education.
There, he lived with his aunt and uncle for the four years he attended Carnegie High. He paid his relatives room and board earned from a paper route (he deposited his salary at the post office for safekeeping—an alternative to banks in those days). In rural Oklahoma during the 1930s, a high school diploma was hard-won—and no easy achievement.
Russell was the oldest of eight children born to Ora and her husband, John. Keeping such a large family in clothing and bedding was practically a full-time job in itself, and Ora was no stranger to needle and thread. Short and feisty, Ora kept her brood warm by making quilts from feed sacks and clothing scraps. But the family’s first high school graduation was a landmark occurrence, which warranted more than a hastily-made utilitarian quilt. Russell’s graduation quilt would require more special fabric and more time and care in its construction.
Ora chose green, pink, and white solids to construct 30 blocks made from the classic Ruby McKim “Album” pattern. Then she embroidered the names of Russell’s 27 classmates, the class sponsor, and the school superintendent on 29 of the blocks. In the center block, she proudly stitched: “James Russell Shinn, CHS, 1929-1933.”
Seventy-four years later, when Russell’s grandson and namesake, Scott Russell (“Russ”) Shinn, graduated from Texas Tech Law School in 2007, his mother, Alice Eden Shinn, made a quilt to commemorate the event as well. And—like his grandfather before him—Russ had to make an extra effort to reach this milestone. As a Marine, he’d had to interrupt his law school education for a tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. His degree was also hard-won and no easy achievement.
Times were not as hard as they had been during the Depression, and certainly the fabric selection was greater. But the care and attention that Alice put into making the special graduation quilt were just as evident. She chose the school’s colors (red and black) for the quilt, and friends and family members wrote congratulatory notes on the blocks, which Alice later embroidered.
For generations, quilts have served as a means for marking important events in peoples’ lives. A school graduation, regardless of the level, is just the sort of momentous occasion that inspires quilters to commemorate the achievements of their loved ones. It takes time and effort to make a quilt, just as it takes time and effort to get through school. That parallel output of energy makes a quilt an especially fitting observance for a graduation present.
Only time will tell if the tradition of making quilts to commemorate graduations will continue in the Shinn family. But Russ’s son, Anthony Russell, just successfully completed kindergarten. With any luck, he just may have a graduation quilt in his future.