NEW YORK — A retired strategic military intelligence officer with 26 years of experience in the U.S. Army isn’t the typical summer intern, but Sue Rhein’s plan to make fur blankets for disabled veterans isn’t a typical summer project either.
Earlier this month, the former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel traveled from her Montana home for a two-week crash course at Corniche Furs here. For her new “Fur for Vets” campaign, the company’s co-owner Jimmy Rekatas taught her how to make fur blankets from the secondhand coats she bought and others that the company donated.
After the tutorial wrapped up Friday, Rhein had made 10 blankets, and she plans to continue making blankets now that she has returned to Big Fork, Mont., with a fur sewing machine, a gift from Corniche. The 40-inch-long blankets will be donated to veterans nationwide.
Rhein, who described herself as 80 percent disabled, volunteers at a veterans home in Montana, the state with the most veterans per capita. Summer is the only time the veterans in wheelchairs can be comfortable outdoors, since the other seasons are too cold, she said. “If they could get outdoors in the spring and late fall, their quality of life would improve so much,” Rhein said. “I figure in 30 years I will probably be a resident in one of those homes, too.”
Rhein majored in home economics, clothing and textiles at the University of Montana, where she was part of the Army ROTC program. But this is the first time she is putting those skills to the test on such a large scale. Rhein’s aim is to encourage furriers to donate coats for her efforts.
Having been stationed in such chilly locales as Augsburg, Germany, Rhein said, “The idea and value of a fur coat was real clear to me in a hurry. I appreciate fur, and now I know firsthand the incredible amount of hours that go into the production of them.”
During a trip to Washington, D.C., Rhein said she wandered into a fur store and asked employees about how she might learn to make fur blankets. She was told to look up Ira Widman at Samuel Bauer, a fur supplier here. He suggested speaking with five different furriers, but after talking to Rekatas, she was sold.
“In Montana, there is only one place that sells and stores furs. Going to my home state was not an option,” she said. “I was interested in learning from the best of the best.”