Since starting in May of 1998, 90-year-old Joan Spear has knitted 1,084 gaily colored hats and 252 pair of mittens and walked them over to Ashland Head Start to hand out to 40 delighted children.

A retired psychotherapist, Spear has volunteered for thousands of uncounted hours over 24 years, mainly as a classroom assistant at Lincoln and Walker elementary schools and Ashland Middle School. Her nimble fingers have found work “mending books” at the city library and Ashland High School library.

She worked 11 years in the Walker classroom of Sooney Viani, who raves about her connection with the kids and her contribution to their education. Spear is also a major donor to Ashland Schools Foundation and financially assists local women in business.

Spear, an inveterate oil painter, has adorned all the walls of her house with landscapes, seascapes and portraits. She has written and illustrated books of short stories and, since retiring from tennis, has taken up daily ping-pong. Oh, and she’s an avid bicyclist.

“It cracks me up about Joan,” says Viani. “She can knit a hat in two hours and can do it in the dark, while watching TV … . If I only had a fraction of the energy and focus she has, it would be wonderful.”

Not too many people can knit these days, but Viani says, “There’s probably another knitter in the community to keep up the work someday.”

“I do it because I think it’s needed, and to help in a small way,” says Spear, noting that all yarn is donated to her and, “There’s no two hats or mittens alike.”

Spear still volunteers as classroom assistant at Walker three mornings a week. They call her “Grandma Joan.” She is a poet and sends out much-anticipated holiday cards with her paintings and verse on them.

“The cards are unique and hilarious, hysterical,” says Viani. “They should be in a gallery.”

Spear counters, “I’m not really unique. We’re all unique. I didn’t send the cards out two years ago and I really got some complaints about it, so I’m back at it.”

“She taught many kids how to play dominoes and knit,” notes Viani. “Being a retired psychiatric social worker, she was skilled in guiding students in ‘talking it out.’ She dressed up for Halloween parties, became a mime when the class studied the art, read to kids, wrote down what they said about their easel paintings to go up on the walls. A little of everything.”

In addition to appreciative kids, friends and educators, Spear has received official recognition of her contributions as the 2012 winner of the city's Ragland Award, which is given to people who have made significant volunteer contributions to the community.

Asked the secret to a long and active life, Spear, a wise-cracking native of Maine, says, “It’s good genes and bad luck.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at