Using a sewing machine and keeping it clean was the hardest thing Ruth Funk had to teach 4-H members in the clothing project. It was also the first thing she made them do.
“When I was a leader, I made every kid clean their sewing machine before they ever started. It avoids a lot of trouble,” said Ruth, who spent more than 50 years as a volunteer project leader with La Prairie 4-H in Wisconsin.
Now a resident at Heritage Homes in Watertown, Wis., Ruth’s room in the assisted living neighborhood showcases pieces from her favorite pastime.
October marks the annual celebration of National 4-H Week. It’s the perfect time to reflect on Ruth’s long 4-H career, which culminated in her induction among the inaugural members of the Wisconsin 4-H Hall of Fame launched last November.
“It was a big honor to be inducted, and I got to see a lot of my friends I haven’t seen for a long time,” said Ruth, who served as vice president of the Rock County Fair Association for more than 20 years.
As a 4-H leader, Ruth was generous with her time and resource. She taught hundreds of youth to sew. If they ran into a problem on a project, a phone call to Ruth would quickly sort things out.
“It was kind of rewarding when they got to the fair and got a ribbon on something I helped them with,” she said.
A 4-H member herself, Ruth enjoyed exhibiting sewing, of course, but also dairy, sheep, gardening and food preservation.
She grew up on a dairy farm where her family milked Holsteins. As a little girl, she fed calves.
Fellow 4-H member Wayne was also from a farm family. The two met at a YMCA dance in Rock County. He was from a different club, but they hit it off and were married years later. Wayne has since passed away; August would have marked their 64th wedding anniversary.
Funks eventually bought Wayne’s childhood farm and kept milking cows. All four of their children joined 4-H and some took sewing. But Ruth didn’t help with those sewing projects.
“My friend Gwen was also in 4-H. She sent her kids to me and I sent mine to her because you never do as good with your own as you do with somebody else’s,” Ruth said.
In addition to her gift with a needle and thread, Ruth was a talented nurse. After receiving a full ride to study at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Janesville, Wis., she went on to a nursing career that included obstetrics, private care and skilled care before she became director of nurses at Rock County Health Care Center. In retirement, Ruth taught nursing assistant classes at Blackhawk Technical College. Along the way, Ruth sewed her own scrubs, shirts for her son to wear to school and a wool jacket for Wayne — with fabric straight from Scotland.
These days, she’s more into quilts than clothes.
“I could waste a lot of time in the quilt shop,” she said. “It’s nice to just take a hunk of material and make it into something that’s really pretty.”
Each of her children and great-grandchildren has a quilt from Ruth. She also donated several to a raffle at her daughter’s middle school in Watertown benefitting kids in need of Christmas gifts.
While a recent stroke left her without the use of her left hand, making sewing difficult, she likes to see the pastime continue in her family. Ruth’s daughters are beautiful seamstresses, and one of her granddaughters works at a quilt shop in Wisconsin.