‘That’s what keeps me going’

91-year-old Morrie Boogaart weaves hats for the homeless while in hospice care.

Morrie Boogaart is 91. He has cancer. He’s in hospice care.

His life is clearly a sunset in the making, but Morrie doesn’t spend his time thinking about dying. He wants to spread hope and light as long as he is living.

Morrie has decided before God calls him home, he wants to make a difference—to the homeless.

“There are a lot of homeless people,” Morrie said, his fingers nimbly moving burgundy and white yarn around the loops of a hoop, creating his latest hat. “Mel Trotter Missions, Salvation Army, I make these for anyone that needs hats.”

How many hats are we talking?

“I quit counting,” said Morrie, who now resides at Cambridge Manor in Grandville, Michigan. “When I quit counting, it was over 8,000.”

As the former owner of Bergsma’s Bakery, Morrie knows all about creating something from nothing for the purpose of making someone else happy. It’s kind of how he lived his life.

“When I was a kid, if my mother told me to go get a loaf of bread from the bakery before school, I’d sneak in the back and pick up and wash dishes,” Morrie recalled. “Then I started making things. I bought the business after I got out of the service.”

He created breads, pies, cookies and shortbreads, all from scratch.

Kind of like his hats.

Morrie’s daughter, Karen Lauters, taught him how to make them in 2001 when he recuperated at her house following hip surgery.

Ever since, he’s made hats.

Despite skin cancer that envelops his cheek, he sits up in his bed, and meticulously wraps the yarn around the spindles. Every day. Sometimes almost all day.

God had a plan for your life. You can see it in every step you took. I’m the hat man. I just did what I liked to do—help people.

Morrie Boogaart

“I made one this morning,” Morrie said. “I probably won’t finish this one before tonight. I make them all in the bed. I watch TV and make hats. If I feel like I’m going to sleep, I put it down.”

Somehow, the motion of making hats resembles a long life, well-lived. The pegs could be construed as days, the yarn, a lifetime, and part of the legacy he’ll leave.

“It’s easy once you get the hang of it,” Morrie said, his hand deftly wrapping the yarn. “You just keep going around every peg. You just keep going around, and going around…”

Morrie reaches into a bag and pulls out a brown hat to demonstrate a finished product.

“See there’s a rim around here that’s for your ears,” he said. “They’re really warm and I make all different colors. I do it all day and all night. I fall asleep at 11 and wake up at 2 and do it again. I’m certainly glad I can do this.”

The hats not only help others, they help Morrie. His wife, Donna Mae, died in 2000. He’s a happy soul, lingering in pleasant memories, but days can get long in a nursing facility. Knowing you’re in hospice, longer still.

Morrie has skin cancer, and a mass on his kidney. He’s under Spectrum Health Hospice.

“I never thought I would be in a place like this,” Morrie said. “But I was willing. I know it has to be.”

A framed photo of Donna Mae adorns the wall nearest his bed. A well-worn Bible rests on his nightstand.

As each day dawns, he looks forward to hats, the splashes of color, the texture of the fibers in his fingers. But most of all, he delights in the way he feels when he’s being productive and helping others.

“It makes me feel good to make them,” he said, flashing his trademark smile. “That’s what keeps me going.”

For Christmas, his birthday and Father’s Day, Morrie receives yarn. Fellow residents donate yarn, so do churches, friends and acquaintances.

The yarn is colorful, like the finch that flits to the bird feeder outside his ground-floor window.

So are his stories.

He talks of being a baker in the Navy during World War II. Once, while he baked pumpkin pies, crews offloaded a large tank from the ship. The vessel listed.

“It tilted the ship and ruined the pies,” he said, chuckling at the memory.

As an adult, he became the neighborhood helper, washing windows for all the ladies on his street.

“In those days, they brought the coal and wood logs,” he said. “I’d go to their house and pick them all up and put them in their basement. I’d shovel snow.”

He never took money for his labors.

“When I was done, I’d walk away,” he said. “It makes me feel so good. It really does. That’s what I like, helping people.”

There was one person he couldn’t help. And it broke his heart.

His youngest son, Russell, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last November.

“He had stomach pain in May,” Morrie said. “In six months he was gone. That’s tough stuff. I couldn’t even go to the funeral.”

But Morrie believes in destiny, and in higher callings. He feels he’s lived one.

“God had a plan for your life,” he said. “You can see it in every step you took. I’m the hat man. I just did what I liked to do—help people. I shoveled snow, cut grass. It just makes me feel good, you know? That’s all my life is, helping people and doing things.”

Rev. Steve Luchies, a chaplain with Spectrum Health Hospice, said he feels honored to support Morrie now that Morrie is at a stage of life when he needs the help of others.

“We are doing all we can to assist Morrie to have the best quality of life possible,” Luchies said. “We are controlling his pain and managing his health symptoms. As a chaplain, I help Morrie identify sources of meaning and strength in his life.”

Russell’s memory is one of those sources. Helping the homeless, another.

Luchies said Morrie inspires him.

“During one of our visits, I read an inspirational reading about gifts that God gives people,” Luchies said. “Morrie shared that God gave him the gift of helping other people. He smiled as he talked about ways he’s helped people throughout his life.”

It’s a long list, woven tightly into his legacy.

“He spoke of shoveling snow and mowing lawns for people,” Luchies continued. “He served our country during World War II and served others through his work as a baker and church custodian. He also volunteered for a hospice and at a blood bank.”

As his body fails, Morrie’s mission to help others remains intertwined with his soul.

“Even though his health limits Morrie to remaining in his bed most of the time, he has found a way to help homeless people by knitting hats,” Luchies said.

Spectrum Health Hospice offers compassionate patient-centered care. Call 616.391.4200 for more information.

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Comments (17)

  • This is the best story I’ve read in a long time. Feeling so purposeless, working the 9 – 5, being complacent and unmotivated, the only thing that makes me feel good is helping people. I love that I share something in common with such a good soul like Morrie. I hope he feels good all his days…

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Samantha. We certainly hope you’ll continue to find inspiration at spectrumhealthbeat.org. I have to say, everyday I read Health Beat stories, I feel renewed and my faith in humanity is restored. Keep doing the good work of helping people and you’ll continue to find purpose.

  • I was so touched by Morrie’s story and would live to donate yarn to support his community outreach. Please provide how I can make this happen. God bless him.
    Karen

    • Hi Karen,

      Thanks for your inquiry and for being a loyal Health Beat reader!

      We checked with Morrie and he’s humbled and honored by all the attention his story has garnered. What a great guy! He’s also really excited about the idea of getting mail.

      Here’s his address: Morris Boogaart, c/o Cambridge Manor, 151 Port Sheldon St. SW, Room 6N, Grandville, MI 49418

  • This story should be shared with everyone in your contacts list. These are the true Americans and heroes of our country that we need to remember. Money will never take the place of what these people leave. I think of those many that have a heart like him that i have known over my years and sad to say as i think about them these wonderful unselfish people are becoming fewer and fewer. BLESS you morrie. Candy

  • He is a inspiration to me. I love to knit and am trying to get my website up and going. But would love to make some items for Charity, so I am going to use Morrie as my inspiration. Knitting is very good therapy!

  • ?ME EMOCIONO SU GRAN CALIDAD DE PERSONA, ME RECORDÓ A MAMA, QUE DIOS LO BENDIGA. CON CARIÑO LE ENVIO UN ABRAZO. NO HAY BARRERAS PARA EL AMOR. ROSADELIA?

  • I so enjoyed reading how this gentlemen at 91 didn’t just start making hats 15 or 16 years ago but was Christlike even as a child!!! Its amazing in this world to get to meet you sir; if only from an article….Thank you for making the world a better place! Praying for your days to be comfortable and pleasant as you end here and live eternally in the presence of our Lord Jesus! Thank you again!
    In Christs love,
    Jeannie W.

  • Morrie is … an inspiration, a role model, a wonderful human being. I have struggled with retirement from a life I loved… spending my days with sixth graders (love them more than I can say). Even though Morrie makes me feel ashamed of myself, I am still smiling. Thank you Morrie, I will try harder to be more like you.

  • MORRIE: How blessed I am to read about you. I too have been making hats (and scarfs) for the homeless and unwed mothers. However, I’m working on my first one-hundred (52 complete).
    Rodger, my husband has been very ill. We are praying that he is listed on the heart transplant list again.
    Throughout our lives, Rodger and I have been blessed with many gifts to give to others. It is a great joy for us. However, since my husband’s illness, we have had to give-up those ministries to care for him.
    God has blessed me with a wonderful God-loving husband. Together, we have traveled together on the great journey God planned for us. We’re in our sixties and are now sharing another great journey…health.
    God has blessed me with another ministry of making knitted and crochet items for those in need. It has saved my life, as I can continue to create and help other in the precious little time, I have during short breaks from caregiving.
    God bless you dear friend. God willing, I’ll see you in heaven.
    Much love,
    VIRGINIA
    xoxoxo

  • I shared this wonderful story about Morrie with our One Hand, One Heart knitting group at Christ Memorial church in Holland, Michigan. We make hats on looms too, and have made many hats to send to South Africa, Muskegon and local charities. But we haven’t made as many as Morrie! He will be an inspiration to us! Thank you for sharing his story.
    God bless you, Morrie.

  • An Inspiration for EVERYONE TO LIVE BY, HE REMINDS ME OF MY GRANDMOTHER. Although she wasn’t a veternan, she had a heart filled with love and caring, I too want to get involved with a charity maybe have one organization of my own. Maybe children as that seems to be clung my name. My son father was lost to a alcoholism disease. My son was 11. Thank God he had me, but what if he didnt. Reading and watching his special love to help others has really inspired me to achieve what God is telling me. Every step you take is a blessing from God. Utilize that and watch your blessings, for you may miss it. Thanks Morrie for showing us all that we can do something to change the world.
    Regards RHonda Adkins

  • Morrie, Thank you for your service to your country!
    Thank you for also being such a wonderful inspiration to all of us.

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