He’s almost given up smoking and he uses clamps instead of pins and needles, but “handyman” Junior Dunham has proven he can do a lot. (Courier staff photos by Trenton Scroggins)
He’s almost given up smoking and he uses clamps instead of pins and needles, but “handyman” Junior Dunham has proven he can do a lot. (Courier staff photos by Trenton Scroggins)
Retiring from brick masonry and heavy machinery to blue jean quilting may seem like a feminine step for a laboring man, but for Arnold “Junior” Dunham, it was natural.

“This here is more complicated than putting an engine together,” Junior said in an interview last Friday afternoon, touching the delicate seamwork of his current project. “It’s just something to pass time with...”

Junior retired the first of last summer after many laborious years as a mason with the Dunham Brothers, 17 years in construction, 10 years in semitruck driving, and numerous more as a hod carrier, mechanic, heavy machinery operator, and pretty much anything else that’s hands on.

“I’m a handy — what do you call it — a handyman. I do a lot,” Junior said.

“He does a lot,” his wife, Bonnie “Kay” Dunham, affirmed. “It keeps his hands busy so he’s not smoking or eating too much.”

“We enjoyed it — working with your hands,” Junior explained his time working with his brothers in masonry. “We just got to the point where we labored so much we couldn’t make no money on it anymore. Mother time caught up to us.”

And now, Junior spends his days with his five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, cutting wood, crafting windchimes and bird feeders, helping his nephew restore a blue 1950 Chevy pickup — and quilting with the Jefferson County extension homemakers club.

This seems like a major flip for some, seeing a man that in his prime could use a backhoe to scoop off a co-worker’s hat in a bet, to actively engaging in a group many consider a woman’s club.

“One woman told me when I joined that it was a woman’s club. And a state officer (for the homemakers) came over and apologized and said it was not a woman’s club it was a homemakers club,” he explained. “It’s not all quilting, there’s woodworking and photography, and more.

“You’d be surprised how many people does this. Like the men, if they did something like this, they wouldn’t want anyone to know because ‘that’s a woman’s job.’

“My uncle used to make baby quilts,” Junior said sternly.

Though Junior does enjoy talking to women, the club gave him something to do as he grows older. It was the acceptance of a new challenge.

“I didn’t belong to homemakers at the time,” Junior said of joining the club some seven or eight years ago. “...I had to take my wife to her meetings, and they asked me what I thought of making quilts and I said anyone can make quilts.”

The ladies gave him a bag of squares and a chance to prove his confidence, adding, “if you know so much, put them together.”

“And I did,” Junior said. “And it was sold at the next auction.”

Many days Junior has spent in his workshop, working at each delicate seam. So much so that, even though he never chose to quit smoking, it has forced him to limit his daily intake to just three or four.

“He hasn’t planned on quitting, but it has slowed him up,” Kay said. “Since (he) has so much hand work and because dropping ash may burn holes in the quilt, he just doesn’t smoke.”

“This was a pocket and this was inside the pocket,” Junior explained, motioning toward the various blue jean blues throughout his quilt. “...That’s the time consuming (part) of it is taking all the stitching out of the blue jeans.”

It takes a lot of blue jeans to make a quilt, so much so that Junior has worn out two seam rippers from cutting off so many zippers “and things.”

His wife said he takes the leftover zippers and pocket patches and either makes small purses or sells them at the annual homemakers quilt show. So far, Junior has made about eight quilts or “something like that.”

One year, Kay said, he donated some to groups to help ensure kids get Christmas.

Junior’s quilts are heavy. He explained, “it feels like you need someone to pick it up so you can just turn over. It’s warm.”

Unlike this year’s homemakers community quilt — and the quilting standards the group has presented — Junior’s quilts do not use an internal padding. Instead, it is just quilted blue jean patches with a thermal backing.

“I worked for a month putting one of these in,” Junior said, touching one of the orange circles at the heart of his pattern.

“I try to stay out of his way,...” Kay said, explaining that she removes herself to another room. “If he yells, sometimes I go in and help him. Sometimes he has issues with color and I’ll help him between the dark and light ones. And I help him pin it too.”

Junior explained that he does not like using pins and needles; instead, he uses clamps because he pricks himself too often.

And even though Junior sees himself as an amateur quilter now after eight or so years, he said he still hasn’t been confronted about selling any of his work yet, though the homemakers drawing dinner did sell one of his to his daughter.

Each year, a team from the homemakers produces one prized quilt to be raffled at its annual 4-H Fairgrounds dinner, while others are presented alongside it. The money raised from the raffle goes directly toward the organization’s annual scholarship program, which funnels into three seniors, one each from Madison Consolidated, Shawe Memorial and Southwestern high schools.

So far, Junior has not participated in the community quilt project. But, he has produced quilts for the show and does plan to participate in this year’s raffle on April 13th at 5 p.m.

Last year, the Madison Courier included a photo of Junior by his show quilt.

“They showed my quilt in the paper, and they said, was that a winner?” Junior humorously said. “And I didn’t even get a runner-up.”

“That means he didn’t even vote for himself,” his wife added.

“Someone told me long ago, if you keep busy you’ll live longer,” Junior said. “When you retire you can’t just sit down, you have to be alive.”

And for Junior, that means staying as busy as possible. Surprisingly enough, there is still one thing this man can’t do.

“We are all good cooks, but don’t ask him to cook,” Kay said of her husband as he replied, “I’d starve to death if I had to make my own dinner.”

But, “he had to learn how to make coffee.”

Courier staff writer Trenton Scroggins can be reached at (812) 265-3641 or at tscroggins@madisoncourier.com