Quilts of Valor
Consider this Jean Westberg’s coming-out reunion of sorts.
For nearly two years, West and her trusty Janome sewing machine had a secret bottled up inside of them. Together, the two executed a plan that took Westberg’s classmates by total surprise at their 50th class reunion from Marian High School in Owatonna on Oct. 12. And it left nearly everyone of them in tears. Lots of tears, in fact.
By the end of the reunion at the Elk’s Club in Owatonna, Westberg had everyone in tears as she presented 14 of her classmates with homemade Quilts of Valor for their dedication and service to the U.S. Armed Forces. It is a project that Westberg worked on since the fall of 2017.
Westberg found the faces and emotions on her classmates when they saw what she had done to be priceless. “Guys don’t want people to know they cry, but they cried,” she said. “I was crying, too,” she added.
Seven of the recipients were there to get their quilts while family members of deceased classmates were awarded the quilts in their honor. A few had to be shipped off to classmates who were unable to attend.
“When John took the quilt out of the box, we were both overwhelmed at the design, the workmanship and the time involved,” wrote Sherri Atkinson in a note to Westberg. Atkinson’s husband, John, served in the U.S. Army. “It has an honored decorative place only on our bed. John lays it out every morning as the finishing touch and removes and sets it aside every night before we go to bed,” she said.
Another classmate, Barry Breidenbach, lives in Colorado and was unable to attend the reunion. “I wish to thank you for all the vets, especially myself, for the thoughtfulness and kindness your deeds reflect onto others,” he wrote to Westberg. “You are a true patriot.”
What makes this especially extraordinary is that Westberg made each and every one of the 14 quilts on her own. In fact, she even had to obtain special clearance from the Quilts of Valor Foundation, whose guidelines prohibit what Westberg was trying to accomplish.
There were some people telling her that there would be no way she could do this by herself. That instilled even more desire into Westberg. “Guess what? I step it up a few notches when somebody tells me that,” she said.
A little persistence on Westberg’s part has found itself wrapped into the quilts. When she initially spoke to the Minnesota representative for Quilts of Valor, she was told her idea to do 14 quilts on her own for specific people did not follow the foundation’s guidelines.
Westberg didn’t take no for an answer. She then reached out to the national organization where a representative gave her the green light. “The lady I talked to said, ‘Do it, wow, let us know how it goes,’” Westberg said.
Westberg has always been intrigued by how Quilts of Valor got its beginnings. It started in 2003 with a dream by Founder Catherine Roberts, whose son Nat was deployed in Iraq. According to Roberts, “The dream was vivid as real life. I saw a young man sitting on the side of his bed in the middle of the night, hunched over. The permeating feeling was one of utter despair. I could see his war demons clustered around, dragging him down into an emotional gutter. Then, as if viewing a movie, I saw him in the next scene wrapped in a quilt. His whole demeanor changed from one of despair to one of hope and wellbeing.” Roberts said the message of her dream was “quilts=healing.”
Westberg said she became motivated when she learned that six quilts had been made for vets in the Class of 1967. She initially didn’t know how many veterans were in her class of 60, and when she found out 14, she became quite frankly scared. “I didn’t think I would be able to get them all done,” she said.
After deciding to do them for her class, she decided to stick with her original plan of making them alone. “They are like my brothers,” she says of the 14 classmates turned veterans. “Why should they get quilts from total strangers?” she wonders. “I thought it would mean more if it’s made by somebody they know.”
A big part of her inspiration to do this for her class was hearing the reaction from members of the Class of 1967. “All of the recipients said, ‘Nobody thanked me and acted like they cared,’” Westberg said, noting they served in the Vietnam War, which has become widely known as the war in which soldiers were treated poorly.
Westberg started watching some TV programs that highlighted war veterans. “All of them had the same thing in common: No one ever thanked me,” she said. “That really bothered me. Now I can sleep knowing that I did something at least for this group.”
For the next two years, Westberg went into a quilting frenzy. She brought her sewing machine everywhere she went and utilized every possible moment to work on the quilts. Sewing even took place on vacations. In Branson, she set up on a patio to operate her sewing machine while her husband was off in the distance golfing. “Every time I had a half hour to sew, I needed to sew,” she said.
She said last year’s long winter proved to be the perfect therapy she needed to stay focused on the quilts. “As long as my sewing machine was working, I was happy,” Westberg said. “It was pretty non-stop, but I loved it.”
Of the 14 quilts Westberg sewed, there are five different designs. Some of the easier designs took about a month to put together while the more difficult ones can take as long as three months. She has no idea how many hours she poured into this project.
Her favorite was one she made for John Oberstein, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1971 to 1995. His quilt featured “In honor of” pattern with an Ohio star on it. Westberg said it appeared like the flags were fluttering even on the quilt. “It’s just really beautiful, it’s truly patriotic,” she said. She paused for a second. “Darn it, I wish I wouldn’t have given them away.”
Throughout her project, Westberg stayed focused knowing that they needed to be done in time for the 50th reunion. “All I could think about was how I could make somebody else happy with my quilt,” she said.
Westberg has been quilting since she was 10 years old. “I’m just fascinated how it can end up being something so beautiful,” she says.
She is relieved to be done with the 14 quilts, but there likely won’t be much rest before the next project kicks in. Westberg said she needs to make her daughter a quilt and her 40th birthday is right around the corner next year. “She is a priority,” she said.
But for the past two years Westberg doesn’t regret making the veterans in her class a priority.
“I liked the genuine surprise and appreciation and hearing that someone wanted to thank them because nobody did when they came home,” Westberg said. “It’s a little late and too late for the ones who have already died.”