Before they were distributed at parades in La Vista and Papillion, before they made it ashore on the islands of the Caribbean, before they traveled to the other side of the world, the wood scraps Eldon Stille has been crafting into empty crosses for more than 30 years started ever-so modestly in his church’s annual Lent program.
“I really don’t know why I started,” Stille said. “I know why I continued.”
Those were the early 1980s, before the countless requests for his palm-sized crosses, before Stille wore down three table saws, before his dementia set in.
The Air Force veteran sold all of his tools earlier this month due to his degenerative condition, bringing his 33 years of cross-making to an end.
He celebrated his 80th birthday on Oct. 18 at his Papillion home.
Eldon Stille was diagnosed with dementia two years ago and he is an evaluation away from having to give up driving and woodworking altogether.
His wife of seven years, Lois, said the unfortunate nature of the condition means her husband can’t safely be around saws, routers and the other impedimenta of his avocation, even if he still sees ideas to fashion from wood.
“He still has a few crosses to make,” Lois Stille said. “But none to cut out.”
Most of the wooden crosses have been cut from hardwood flooring scraps consisting of Brazilian cherry wood, walnut, zebra and rosewood.
Eldon Stille said he received the wood for free from Heartland Wood Floors in Omaha.
In total, he said, the crosses were very cheap to make.
“It only cost electricity, time and a little bit of glue,” Stille said.
The bulk of his crosses were made after a heart attack in 1998 forced him into retirement.
Since then, his crosses have traveled en masse with various youth groups to countries around the globe.
Stille said he has distributed 700 crosses to Jamaica, 1,000 to Russia, about 300 to China and a few more to New Zealand. His final 3,000 crosses have gone to his most recent place of worship, Calvary Christian Church in Bellevue.
“Eldon has shared often with me how much Jesus has blessed his life,” said the church’s lead minister, Scott Beckenhauer. “Because of that, Eldon has lived his life to give that same love to others.”
Stille’s home is a reminder of his woodworking days: An oak entertainment center displays his television, a hutch made from an old window stores Lois’ clothing and a two-person settee loaded with secret compartments and a retractable armrest lines a wall.
His “real pride and joy,” he said, is a wooden ark filled with wooden animals that he made for Lois when they were “going together.”
While he is no longer capable of adding to the world he’s built around himself, Stille said he’s not lacking in ideas for projects, even if he has lost the means for executing them.
“I still think — no, I can’t do that,” he said. “I don’t have any tools.”