Originally published Dec. 24, 2012.
Born in Chicago and making her way through five states before settling in the small Huntington County community of Warren some 40 years ago, Lilly Nutter has fallen in love with her adopted hometown, and the people in it.
"It's a beautiful place," Nutter says from her small - and tightly packed - apartment in the retirement community of Heritage Pointe.
Nutter's reach, though, extends far beyond the town of little more than 1,200 people. Her contacts, and her supporters, can be found around the globe, the result of a project she began a dozen years ago at the request of her grandson.
"When the war started, I had a letter from my grandson," she recalls. He was dismayed that some of the men he was serving with in Iraq didn't get any mail from home, and he asked Grandma if she could do something about it.
Nutter marshaled the troops at home - consisting at that time of fellow retired ladies who were members of her Red Hat Society - and sent off care packages to the men whose names her grandson had provided.
The ball had started rolling, and it hasn't stopped.
"I made my 1,181st last week," she says proudly.
She also found time to celebrate her 100th birthday with hundreds of friends, people she's made through an active post-retirement career as a volunteer that didn't begin in earnest until she was in her 80s.
Nutter has followed a circuitous route to her current place in the world.
Her family moved frequently when she was young, and she met her first husband in Ohio. After his death, she married Tommy Nutter, who happened to be from Warren, in Nevada. After 35 years in California, they moved to Tommy's hometown.
They took up residence on land that had long been in her husband's family and was originally owned by the town's founder, Samuel Jones. Nutter moved to Heritage Pointe 18 years ago, and the land now belongs to her daughter.
She made her debut as Warren's premier volunteer after Tommy's death in 1985.
"After he passed away, I volunteered for everything I could think of," she says. "It was very, very rewarding."
She worked with the community food pantry, helped out with the box office of the Pulse Opera House, served as the town's Welcome Wagon lady and became an honorary member of the Warren Chamber of Commerce, making all the chamber's telephone calls "until my eyes gave out recently."
She led a petition drive to keep the Warren Post Office open over the lunch hour, and tried to convince state officials to keep a license branch open in Warren. The license branch was eventually closed, despite Nutter's best efforts.
The letter from Iraq came after she had already taken on a host of community volunteer responsibilities, but it touched a special place in her heart. A long career with the Department of Defense in California and later at Grissom Air Force Base left her with an appreciation of the sacrifices made by members of the military.
"That's where I acquired my respect and admiration for the military," she says.
The care packages were a good community project for the Red Hatters, but a chance phone call from a group of veterans set a new trajectory.
The group was made up of men who had served during World War II on the USS Salamonie, a ship named for the Salamonie River that flows through Warren. The group contacted Warren Clerk-Treasurer Marilyn Morrison, looking for a place to display USS Salamonie memorabilia, and met Nutter through Morrison.
Nutter told them about the packages she was sending to the troops.
"They said, ‘May we adopt you?'" Nutter says. "That's when it all started."
Thirty members of the group from across the United States regularly send contributions to fund postage for the ongoing project. Friends of her son in San Francisco, CA, have helped out; people she's met along the way also send regular gifts to keep the boxes flowing.
She sees a divine hand in the contributions and gifts she's received.
"It couldn't be just accidental," she says. "All the glory for my strength goes to the Lord."
She recalls the time when, as a young mother, her daughter wanted to go swimming. Admission to the pool cost a quarter, and money was so tight she didn't have a quarter to spare. But she'd previously sent in a coupon for a 25-cent rebate, and the quarter came in that day's mail.
When she acquired her red hat to wear to meetings of the Red Hat Society, she decided she needed some sort of band to keep it on her head. She walked past the "free table," where Heritage Pointe residents trade items they no longer need, and found a perfect piece of elastic.
Often, when she needs to see someone, she'll just happen to meet that person in the hall.
"It's not a coincidence," she says. "The Lord does listen."
And, she says, the Lord keeps the gifts coming to
enable the young men and women who serve in the military to receive tangible signs of support from back home.
"I can get up to 30 articles in a box," she says. "When I pack them, they're pregnant. They stick out on all sides."
She sends toiletries, snacks and reading materials, occasionally tailoring the boxes to meet specific requests, which have included foot warmers, circus peanuts and sardines.
She sent nail polish for the female military members, who are prohibited from painting their fingernails, to use on their toes.
"They were men all day long," she says. "They like to be women at night."
At one point, she collected stuffed animals after a soldier who had set up a hospital for children requested one sucker, one Tootsie Roll and one stuffed animal for each of the children treated there.
Nutter sent enough for 500 children before the hospital was discovered by terrorists and shut down. The remaining stuffed animals went to the Huntington Police Department.
Her ophthalmologist, her optometrist and her dentist regularly send items her way to send on to the troops.
But mostly, she says, "I do all the shopping."
And most of that shopping is done at a Dollar General store just down the street - and across Ind.-5 - from Heritage Pointe.
Nutter gets around perfectly well on her own - she points out that she's thankfully free of all the aches and pains that generally pile up with the years - and uses an electric cart to make her shopping trips.
She scoffs at the concerns expressed by some of her friends about crossing the busy street.
"I drove on the California freeways for 35 years," she says. "I'm not afraid of crossing the highway."
Each box takes about two weeks to reach its recipient, a person whose name has been supplied by a family member or friend. She sends one box a month to each person on her list.
How many different people have been on the receiving end of her care packages?
"Honey, I have no idea," she says.
She assumes her packages are going to Iraq and Afghanistan, but she's not certain of that. She sends the boxes out to an APO address, and they're forwarded to the intended recipient.
"I honestly don't know where they're going," she says. "I just know that they're going to someone who's in harm's way."
When Nutter met her initial goal of sending 1,000 care packages, she earned recognition from Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the National Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations and the governors of Ohio and Indiana, among others.
The awards are carefully preserved in a thick three-ring binder, with additional binders holding hundreds of letters from grateful recipients of the boxes.
"I don't have them all done yet," Nutter says of cataloging the letters. "I'm working on it. I just haven't had time."
The soldiers don't just send letters.
"Several have come back and thanked me in person," she says. "I have met lovely people."
One man knocked on her door, carrying the address label from the package she had sent him.
"He came in, and we had a lovely visit," she says.
Others send gifts - a camel figurine, a green velvet frog, a purse from Thailand.
Nutter says she plans to keep on sending care packages "as long as I can see."
Her vision is beginning to fail, and her daughter has given her some special lamps that make it easier to see.
"I sit at my Royal typewriter that I hauled from California and I type with one finger," she says. "The special lights make a big difference."
The typewriter sits in one corner of her small sitting room, next to a TV screen she uses to keep up on her online correspondence.
Several hundred birthday cards, received for her 100th birthday on Dec. 12, are boxed neatly on a TV tray, waiting to be recorded and then donated to a local church to be recycled.
Boxes of birthday chocolates are shared with guests, and half-packed care packages await completion. Gifts destined for those boxes are hidden behind a daybed.
Nutter has every intention of keeping the care packages going.
"I'll just go on until the Lord lets me go to sleep," she says.
She doesn't need a funeral, she says; she's enjoying the fruits of her labor now.
"I am smelling the flowers, I'm hearing the kind words, and I'm enjoying every minute of it."