When a broken leg forced Theres Whitfield to move into a retirement home, she couldn’t have expected the result.
Whitfield said during her time there, she observed some women knitting, and she decided to join them.
The pastime led to an act of charity.
Whitfield has since moved back into her Columbus home, and for six years she has knitted hats. She sells them and donates the proceeds to the Columbus Holy Family Soup Kitchen.
“I started to knit (hats), and then I said, … ‘I will sell them and donate every penny to something.’ Then the soup kitchen came to my mind,” Whitfield said.
The Columbus St. Andrew Church parishioner, who celebrated her 93rd birthday in February, said she sells 100 hats a year for $10 apiece.
“When I go to the doctor’s office, wherever, I knit. People ask, ‘What are you doing?’ And then I’ll tell them about the hats,” Whitfield said. “Whatever I do, whatever I sell, I don’t keep a penny.”
She knits the “European way,” which does not require looking at the needle and yarn. This draws attention from onlookers who wonder how she can knit so quickly without looking at her work, Whitfield said.
She also knits “scrubbies,” which are small, abrasive dishwashing cloths used for cleaning pots and pans that she sells for $5 each.
Her charity is made possible by the support of family and friends, who sell some of the knitted items. Whitfield is especially grateful, she said, for their help in reaching her goal every year.
Whitfield might be known for her charity, donating $1,000 to the soup kitchen each year, but she also has a story of trial and triumph that might be less widely known.
Whitfield grew up in a family of eight in Zeiningen, Switzerland, during World War II.
“It was tough because it was during the war,” she said.
Whitfield’s family lived on a farm located by the Rhine River that overlooked Germany.
“She tells stories of how everything was rationed, and there was hardship. She lived through a stressful time,” said her godson, Robert Echenrode.
In 1953, at the age of 23, she left home with her aunt to immigrate to the United States. Whitfield intended to stay in America for a brief period to learn English.
“I always say I’m a slow learner,” she said. “That’s the reason I’m still here.”
Whitfield took a job as a server at the Lazarus bakery counter, located on the first floor of the former downtown Columbus store on South High Street. Lazarus management thought working as a server would help her to learn English, Whitfield said.
She went on to become manager of the bakery and, eventually, head of the bakery department for all Lazarus stores.
As head of the bakery, Whitfield was in charge of creating and testing items for the Lazarus restaurants.
Her work was noticed by Charles Lazarus, the last member of the Lazarus family to lead the chain of department stores. He was president of the chain and eventually became chairman of the board and chief executive officer.
“Theres was a hard worker and on a first-name basis with Charles Lazarus. He got her citizenship to go back to Switzerland and visit her family,” said Whitfield’s second cousin, Molly Wood.
American citizenship was required at the time for Whitfield to travel back to Switzerland for her brother’s wedding. She made such an impression on Charles Lazarus that he used his connections to make sure she received citizenship, Wood said.
Over time, Whitfield’s use of more flavorful baking ingredients was not approved by the corporation that took over Lazarus.
“They decided that you don’t use butter in the bakery, or you don’t use pure whipping cream, or Swiss chocolate,” she said. “That’s what they had decided, and that’s what made me feel like I want to do what I want to do.”
After 28 years at Lazarus, Whitfield left to start her own bakery.
“I always said there are some people who will pay for it if you make it right. So, I said goodbye to Lazarus and opened my own shop,” she said.
Whitfield opened the Suisse Shop Bakery in 1983 on Busch Boulevard in north Columbus. It was located across from The Continent, a popular shopping destination at the time.
Whitfield ran the bakery for 10 years before selling to retire.
“If you make it good, people will find you no matter where you’re at. … I believed in making it the best,” she said.
The Suisse Shop Bakery, which relocated to Polaris Parkway in Westerville, is currently in its 40th year.
Whitfield said she still enjoys baking. She grows raspberries in her backyard to make jelly and sweets.
Whitfield is also an avid traveler.
“I have been on 23 cruises around the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii – you name it. My sister in Switzerland and one of her daughters and I hooked up together after I retired. We would take a cruise for a week every year. If we finished one, we signed up for the next one,” she said.
Whitfield said she took a trip through Rome; Barcelona, Spain; and the Mediterranean a couple of years ago. And she recently returned from a cruise with her nieces and nephews to the Caribbean.
In 2020, while she was returning from a cruise to Hawaii celebrating her 90th birthday, the passengers on the ship were forced to quarantine due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitfield was sent to Fort Benning, a U.S. Army post in Georgia, to quarantine for three weeks.
“I always claim she has nine lives,” Wood said. “She hasn’t used them up yet.”
Between the people she has encountered on her cruises and the family she has in Switzerland and scattered throughout the United States, Whitfield has international influence.
She has impacted the life of Echenrode, who lives more than 2,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon.
“Half of my travels have been influenced by her,” he said. “She has given me the gifts of exploring and experimenting with food, and the love of culture and travel.”
She has also impacted those living near to her.
“I met Theres when I moved next to her to be near my mother who was 92 and in poor health. She ultimately passed, and to my surprise, Theres just sort of filled the role,” said neighbor Joel Korte.
From the hats she makes to the travels she takes, Whitfield’s influence is extensive.
“She is a Catholic ambassador to the upbringing of many successful Catholic parents and children,” Echenrode said. “She casts a net over half the world.”