In stitches

Florence Newman displays her award-winning  needlepoint of a cat. Photo by Harriet Winner
Florence Newman displays her award-winning needlepoint of a cat.
Photo by Harriet Winner

In needlepoint, sharp eyesight, nimble fingers and deep concentration are essential, which makes Florence Newman’s recent award-winning finish at the nation’s largest needlework show, held
recently in Alexandria, all the more impressive.

Newman is 100 years old and still creating pillows and wall hangings that decorate her Bethesda apartment as well as the homes of her children, grandchildren and other relatives. She proudly shows off two notebooks filled with photos of her masterpieces.

She captured second and third place in the annual show at the Woodlawn Plantation.

The centenarian didn’t begin learning the stitches and tricks of needlepoint until she was more than 65 years old and already retired from a 13½-year career as a business education teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, which was then followed by a few more years with the State Department, teaching English and business skills.

Now she spends, “three, four, five hours at a time” sitting in a blue chair by the window. “It’s hard for me to get away. It’s intriguing,” she said. It takes her two to three months to complete each piece. “It would take most people a year,” she said.

“For a retired person, who lives alone, it’s wonderful,” she said of needlepoint. Her husband, who worked for the Internal Revenue Service, died in 2009.

She tackles each pattern with joy and intensity, just as she taught her classes. Hers was a popular class, because many of her students, living so close to Washington, wanted to ace the civil service test.

Also, the female students wanted to excel as being a secretary was a common career choice in those days.

Newman did not merely teach the basics of typing, shorthand and stenography. Instead, she insisted her students excel in grammar and spelling. How good can one’s transcribing be if the document is filled with misspellings and incorrect punctuation, she reminded her students.

When reminiscing about those days, Newman recalled guiding students to type 80 words a minute as much as she remembered the cows walking right up to her classroom window. Back then, Bethesda was less built up, and Walter Johnson was surrounded by fields, she said. She retired in 1985.

The mother of two, grandmother of three, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University, paying her tuition through the New Deal, which provided her with $15 a month as long as she worked, which she did, typing papers for professors.

Throughout the ensuing years as she worked and raised her family, Newman tinkered in knitting and crocheting. She also made homemade bread, soup and jam.

She lived for a short time in Philadelphia but spent much of the years she raised her family in Chevy Chase, where her family attended Temple Emanuel.

Now, Newman lives on her own in the condominium she moved into about 30 years ago. Except for carpal tunnel syndrome, which she believes is probably related to her hours of needlepoint, Newman shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down.

About a year ago, when Newman was experiencing some dizziness, her son, a doctor, insisted she get a CT scan. The radiologist who read her X-ray was amazed, said Newman’s daughter, Harriet Winner of Potomac, who recalled the doctor said she had a brain of a 30- to 40-year-old person.
“She is sharp as a tack,” said Winner. Her mother stopped driving only recently.

Besides needlepoint, “I read a lot. I read The New Yorker from cover to cover.”

She also is a huge fan of the Washington Redskins football team. While she has “no particular feeling one way or the other” as to whether her favorite team should change its name, Newman said, “I don’t know why the owner of the Redskins is so against changing it if the Indians are so against [the team’s name].”

Newman claims to have no idea why she has lived to 100 and still in good health. “I have no secret. I really don’t.”

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