Chevy Chase Man, 89, Sews Coronavirus Face Masks For Hospital

BETHESDA, MD — Two weeks ago, 89-year-old Dan Willkens didn’t know how to sew. Now, he sits hunched over his daughter’s Bernina sewing machine, crafting fabric face coverings to help shield hospital staff from the coronavirus.

“This is my first attempt,” Willkens told Patch. “I learned by watching my wife (sew) for 60 years, (as well as) my five daughters.”

Willkens — who lives with his daughter, Diane, in Chevy Chase — is homebound during the outbreak. With more time on his hands, he’s hoping to do what he can to help the local community.

“We’ve got a whole basement full of fabric,” he said. “From what I hear, I won’t be out on the street for another couple of months. I need something to do and there is a great need for masks.”

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Thousands of hospitals across the country are facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. In Bethesda, Suburban Hospital is asking community members to donate non-latex gloves, face shields, cloth masks and other medical supplies.

To date, Willkens has donated 18 masks to the Bethesda hospital. They’ll be used by hospital support and administrative staff.

Diane says Suburban Hospital wants hundreds more.

It’s a tall order for even the most experienced seamster. But Willkens — a woodworker and former mechanical engineer — wants to make them on his own.

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“We had an assembly line of help, but he said: ‘I can do this. This is going to be my project,'” Diane said, adding that her father spends anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day sewing masks.

“That’s my dad,” she said, laughing. “If he saw someone who needed some help, he’d stop at the side of the road and help. Whatever they needed.”

As a woodworker, Willkens is used to crafting items by hand. Even with poor circulation in his fingers, the 89-year-old has built 6-foot replicas of a hutch from his childhood home and dry sinks modeled after the one he used on his wedding day.

“All the woodworking I’ve done is to create something, and something useful,” he said. “The masks appear to be something useful and something I can do.”

The Chevy Chase resident can now sew four masks a day but says working with cloth is more difficult than working with wood.

“You need an eighth of an inch to sew a straight line, and the machine doesn’t want to go in a straight line. And you can’t get your fingers too close to the needle or you’ll sew your fingers,” said Willkens, who is left-handed.

“He couldn’t figure out why it was hard to sew a straight line,” Diane said. “The machine is for righties.”

“But you should see his stitches now,” she continued. “He still can’t thread the bobbin, though. I still have to help him with that.”

In this new reality, Diane says “Dad is feeling a real connection to mom.” Marie Willkens was the granddaughter of a tailor and taught Home Economics at a high school in Ohio.

Her birthday was last week. She would have been 90.

“He thought mom was sitting right alongside him and getting quite a chuckle as he sewed these face masks. Because he never sewed before this.”

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