As the nation comes together on Veterans Day to honor those who have served in the military, a group of Tucson veterans will pay tribute to their comrades while they give back to the community in creative and thoughtful ways.
Today, some of them will attend parades and ceremonies as they take pensive moments to think of fellow veterans and loved ones who fought in wars.
Later, they will go back to their workshops as members of the Southern Arizona Woodturners Association or the Desert Woodcrafters, where they will shape wood into canes for needy veterans or into wooden pens given to the recipients of Purple Heart medals.
Their hands work wood into boxes to hold colorful beads for seriously ill children. Some make wooden toys to give to children at Christmas, while others spend time making display cases to hold interment flags for veterans.
Meet veterans Mike Phillips, Paul Swane, George Lewis and Dan Williams, whose love for shaping or carving wood takes them to their shops for hours each week. It is there, in the midst of machines and sawdust, that they are content creating for others.
Phillips, 71, lovingly looked at a display case he made for the interment flag of his father, Bill, who died at age 89 in 2010. “He served in the 3rd Armored Cavalry during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. I learned patriotism from him,” said Phillips, in a voice choked with emotion. “My dad saw a lot of blood and friends who died. I am named after one of his friends,” Phillips said.
He said his father was in a unit that liberated prison camps in Germany and did not talk much about the horror he witnessed, including piles of bodies and starving, injured prisoners.
Phillips, who served in the Army’s 13th Armored Cavalry in Germany in the 1960s, said he is honored to make flag display cases. “Veterans Day is one of the most important holidays that we observe,” said Phillips, a retired auto-parts manager who learned to build custom furniture from his father. Years later, he taught himself how to turn wood on a lathe, using chisels to shape the wood.
“It is magical to get a piece of wood on the lathe. It amazes me what colors you are going to find inside the wood as you work the piece,” said Phillips, who also crafts Christmas ornaments, bowls and platters for family gifts.
Spending hours in the wood shop is pure enjoyment for Swane, 76, who joined the Army in 1964 and worked as a supply sergeant for the Army National Guard until 1969 in Sturgis, South Dakota. He later worked for a company selling children’s books and toys, climbing to sales management positions until his retirement, moving to SaddleBrooke north of Tucson 12 years ago.
Swane bought a lathe and became serious about shaping and turning wood before he researched and joined the woodcrafters and woodturners organizations. He said he is filled with satisfaction giving to others, a trait he learned from his father, who lived through the Depression.
Swane said he is proud of the men’s accomplishments in helping with the associations’ projects. The local groups have crafted more than 16,000 wooden pens for troops overseas since 2002 and make about 200 pens yearly from purpleheart wood for Arizona veterans honored with the Purple Heart medal.
Tucson native Lewis said projects take him into his shop where he spends hours crafting with no outside interference. The 80-year-old joined the Navy Reserve in the 1950s and is now a retired Southern Pacific Railroad worker who finds peace making furniture for family and crafting pens, toys and boxes for the Beads of Courage program.
Lewis was among the artisans who recently gathered in midtown at Ken Tower’s shop. Tower, a retired Flowing Wells High School woodworking and shop teacher, found pleasure showing his waddling duck, penguin and playhouse furniture for children. He has mentored hundreds of students over 30 years and continues sharing his knowledge with fellow crafters.
One who is grateful for their talents is nurse Jean Gribbon, executive director of Beads of Courage, a charity headquartered at 3230 N. Dodge Blvd. She said she is grateful for the artists’ unique boxes for the organization’s arts and medicine programs for children coping with cancer and other serious illnesses. Each bead symbolizes courage and marks milestones in a child’s medical treatments.
“The last three years we have worked with the American Association of Woodturners,” said Gribbon, explaining that chapters across the country make the special boxes. “Woodturning is a very old art form. Each piece is original, and they are just beautiful. Families and children love the boxes, which I look at as a sacred vessel.” Some children receive up to 500 beads a year during their treatment journey.
The Tucson associations reached out to Gribbon, and since 2014 local craftsmen have created more than 300 boxes for the Beads of Courage program. “We certainly do not receive enough boxes for every child to receive one, but numbers are increasing,” said Gribbon.
Globally the organization serves 60,000 children a year, and it receives about 3,000 boxes annually.
Williams understands the needs of the children, and he turns to his woodcarving experience of 20 years to make finials for the lids of the Beads of Courage boxes. “I use pure imagination to create and paint cartoon and children’s book characters,” said Williams, 75, a native of Detroit who joined the Army in 1960 and served in the military police. He retired from General Motors and moved to SaddleBrooke in 2004.
“I do it for the kids. I love to see their smiles,” said the woodcarver, whose fascination with miniature carrousel horses started him on this crafting journey.