This year, Flour Bluff lost one of its best, Leota “Lee” Gaines. She will always hold a special place in the hearts of all who knew her, especially the children who knew her by her good works.
One of Santa’s best elves is a woman named Leota “Lee” Gaines. She spent the last 12 years of her life bringing smiles to children’s faces with her handmade stuffed animals. As of 2018 when this story first ran, she had made over 10,000 of these unique toys for children at Driscoll Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Coastal Bend (CACCB), the Corpus Christi Police Department, ESD#2 Santa Float, and various other child-centered agencies in the area.
Lee turned 89 on December 22, 2020 and continued to make animals until she grew gravely ill. She went to be with her Lord on January 23, 2021. Lee was born on December 22, 1931 in Fredericksburg, Texas. She moved to Corpus Christi in 1967. Lee loved children and focused her life on raising her own and many foster children. She dedicated her life to helping others. Lee sewed stuffed animals for many organizations, with the hope that children’s lives would be made brighter. She always loved to say, “My day is complete; I heard a child laugh.”
Gaines got her start by dressing dolls and bears for the Salvation Army. “The Salvation Army would get dolls and bears, and various people would dress them in the theme for the year,” said Gaines. “Then, in November, they would have an event at Heritage Park where the dolls and bears were judged. The blue-ribbon winners would be sold at auction. All the other dolls and bears went to the needy children. One year I dressed 155 dolls.”
A woman named Evelyn Davis led Gaines to become interested in making stuffed animals when Davis took Lee to Ethel Eyerly Senior Center for lunch. “There was a group of women there who were making stuffed animals for Driscoll,” said Gaines. “Mary Coco would gather them up and take them to the hospital for the children, but those women did not go in for this the way I do. They would embroider eyes on them, but they didn’t decorate them the way I do. No two of my animals are ever alike. No, no, we can’t do that! I make about 75 a month, which is one box of Fiberfil. That costs me about $28.00. That’s not counting the fabric and the ribbon. All of that is extra.”
Gaines is the only one left who makes the animals. “Mary Coco, the president of the group, passed away. She was the delivery person. Pat Partney, who was legally blind, was the only one who used the machine to sew the pieces together. All the other women stuffed the animals, and Iris Robinson sewed them shut. She was also doing the embroidery. I also sewed them shut, and I took on most of the work when Iris got to where she couldn’t keep up,” said Gaines. “Iris eventually wound up with Alzheimer’s and had to move to San Antonio.”
“I never liked the embroidered eyes and mouth,” said Gaines. “It doesn’t allow you to give the animals personality. All of mine have smiles.”
Gaines’s grandmother, Anna Moellering, taught her to sew on a pedal sewing machine. “After World War II, when I was in high school, I started sewing on an electric sewing machine. I was in my second year of home economics in Fredricksburg, Texas,” said Gaines. “The first time I sewed on an electric machine, I ran a needle through my finger, right beside the nail.”
On one visit to the Ronald McDonald House, Gaines had an opportunity to see how much the children appreciate her efforts. “I was delivering my animals. A little girl named Raquel was there, and she was petting a little dog that was always at the place. The lady behind the counter who was running that shift told the little girl she could go behind the counter to get one my stuffed teddy bears. She picked one out and took it over to show it to the puppy dog. She just hugged it and wouldn’t let go. The lady must have told her that I made the stuffed animals because Raquel turned around and came straight to me and gave me the biggest hug,” said Gaines. Later Gaines learned that Raquel had a malignant tumor on her liver and traveled from Laredo to get chemo treatments at Driscoll. “Now all she has to show for what she went through is a scar on her tummy. She is in remission,” said Gaines. “Knowing that one of my teddy bears gave her comfort when she was going through all of that made me feel 10 feet tall!”
Gaines had an experience in 1965 at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio that seemed to foreshadow what she would be doing forty years later. She met and married her first husband, William Kunz, in April 1956. They lived in Kerrville, just 24 miles from her childhood home of Fredericksburg, Texas, where she was raised by Lutheran parents of German descent. Within ten years of getting married, her husband suffered from an aneurism.
“He’d never been sick and hadn’t missed a day of work in the ten years we had been married. I was working at a hotel/restaurant from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and he worked from 3:30 p.m. to midnight. He took care of the kids in the morning, and I was there at night. Her husband had an aneurism that the doctors tried to treat, but when they checked him, they discovered the aneurism was about to rupture. The Kerrville doctors moved him to Santa Rosa Hospital, and I went with him. I had to farm my kids out. The oldest one was in second grade and lived with the next-door neighbors so that she could keep going to school. My two little ones, who were 6 and 1, stayed with my mother at night and with my sister-in-law during the day when my mother went to work. I was in that hospital every day for the entire month of March.”
During the time that Gaines was in the hospital with her husband, she was only allowed to visit with him 5 minutes every two hours. During the in-between times, she found herself drifting across the hall where the sick children were. “There was one little girl who had had kidney surgery, and I spent a lot of time with her. She was eight years old. When her mother would leave to go home to New Braunfels, the tears would roll, but she never made a sound. It broke my heart,” said Gaines. “I would just pet her and love up on her. That’s when I realized how hard it was on them. My children had lost their father, but they were healthy and with people who loved them. That experience planted a seed in me way back in 1965.”
After that, Gaines remarried in 1967 to Pennington Yow Gaines and moved to Flour Bluff. Together they would raise her three children and take in many more as foster children, two of whom they eventually adopted. In 2002, William developed leukemia. For the next six years, Gaines would tend to her husband until he passed in 2008. It was that year that she started volunteering to dress the dolls and bears for the Salvation Army, and she never looked back. Lee spent hours just sewing the Dalmatian pups for the Flour Bluff Fire Department to hand out to the children every year when they drove the Santa Float through the streets of Flour Bluff, Padre Island, and NAS CC.
“I do it for the children,” said Gaines. “They are our future. What else am I here for if not to tend to them. My grandmother helped me and taught me to sew. Now, I’m paying it forward.”
Lee is preceded in death by her parents, Harry and Elsie Moellering, and two husbands, William Kunz and Pennington Gaines. Left to cherish her memories are her sister, Harriet Crenwelge; her children, Lynette (Robert) Frazier, Dennis Kunz, Pamela (Sam) Soles, Walter (Mary) Gaines and Danielle Gaines; ten grandchildren, Timothy (Evette) Frazier, Julie Frazier, Joshua Frazier, Carly Kunz, Eric (Shelley) Soles, Alexandra Soles, Christina Gaines, Austin Gaines, Matthew Aguilar and Ryan Aguilar; eight (and ½) great grandchildren and extended family and friends who loved her dearly.
A Graveside Service was held at 10:00 a.m., Saturday, January 30, 2021 at Der Stadt Friedhof Cemetery in Fredericksburg, Texas. A celebration of life service will be held in Corpus Christi at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that those who loved her donate to a local children’s charity of their choice.
Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Flour Bluff, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer a glimpse into the past and present of the little community of Flour Bluff. She wrote for The Flour Bluff Messenger, wrote and edited for The Texas Shoreline News, a Corpus Christi print newspaper that existed from December 2017 to April 2020, served as copy editor on three books, and continues to tutor students of all ages in the lively art of writing.