For a woman of 92, Olive Ellner has a remarkable memory. She can, for example, remember how over 85 years ago, she and her young sister went door-to-door collecting nickels and dimes for Hadassah. They were part of the only Jewish family in the small New Jersey town where they lived. Although her neighbors barely knew any Jews, and most had never heard of Hadassah, she ended up collecting $150.
She had a knack, even then, for getting things done for others, and providing the motivation to accomplish what most would think could never be accomplished. So it is not surprising that, as she sat in her small living room at Sunrise at Huntcliff Summit, a senior living community in Sandy Springs, this spry and energetic widow takes such pride in the most successful project of her advanced years.
Stacked neatly on her sofa and a nearby easy chair are 24 large white boxes, tied with colored knitting yarn. Each contains a folded, hand-knitted red, white and blue blanket in the shape of an American flag. On Veterans Day, they’ll all go to the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Clairmont Road to provide extra warmth for wheelchair-bound vets.
The blankets are knitted by a network of volunteers she manages in the building where she lives and elsewhere in the metropolitan area. She started the project with fellow residents she cornered in the building’s elevator, who couldn’t easily escape her effective plea for help.
She provides the knitting instructions, the yarn and the encouragement, then finishes each blanket with 50 porcelain stars that her daughter, Lisa Saltzman, found in England. A thank you note tops each presentation box.
“I had trouble at first getting people because I think they thought they couldn’t do it, but I showed them how simple it was, just plain knitting, not even knit and purl. We have a woman in Athens now who’s just phenomenal. She’s made 12.”
She started the project five years ago, soon after moving here from Long Island to live near her daughter. A friend had told her of the storage room at the VA hospital that was filled with blankets that had been donated and no one wanted.
“You know why they didn’t use them? Because they couldn’t relate to such a dull gift, useful as it was. It has to be something they can relate to. And what honors a soldier more than anything else, but a flag of America? And that’s how I started.”
Getting involved in causes is nothing new for Ellner, who has the energy, vitality and good humor of someone half her age. On her refrigerator is a magnet from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit to which she donates that has a long history of fighting racism and anti-Semitism in America.
Just a few weeks ago she was in the institutional kitchen at Huntcliff Summit to pass out forms and instructions to mostly Hispanic and African American workers about how to register to vote.
“I get a lot of people involved, because you learn this about being a leader for the causes you believe in – you can’t be a leader without followers. The more people you get involved, the bigger the following.”
In her apartment office, with its small-framed pictures of children and grandchildren, is a poster-size blowup of a news photo from the early 1970s that shows Ellner as part of a line of demonstrators. They had just been arrested for protesting the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. The photo, which was taken outside the Soviet embassy at the United Nations on Manhattan’s East Side, shows her waiting her turn to step up into a police paddy wagon.
“I don’t think of myself as a do-gooder. I don’t think of that at all. It’s just my mission to do what I can for people who need help. It makes me feel good.”
So, Ellner, who is old enough to remember when Veterans Day was once called Armistice Day to honor the end of World War I, intends to keep up her good work for years to come.
“I don’t feel 92. I don’t feel any age. They say it’s not the years in your life, it’s the life in your years.”
With her passion for helping others and her keen memory, she doesn’t intend to forget what a flag can mean to a veteran on Veterans Day.