The Idea for a Christmas Epaulets charity (ChristmasEpaulets.com) evolved after John Knutson passed away from cancer in March of 1997 at the age of 56. First, let’s go back and know Captain John.
John Hartwell Knutson was born on February 13, 1941 and raised with his two sisters on the family farm in northern Wisconsin where they tended a herd of excellent-grade Guernsey dairy cows. Though uanaware then, John had farming in his blood. After graduating in 1959 from Chetek High School, he tried college at UW River Fall but decided it wasn’t for him. He left college and worked at a variety of factory jobs in the Minneapolis area. In fall 1963, John was drafted into the U.S. Army and was off to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training. What the Army didn’t know was that John’s knees were in terrible shape from a childhood of ski jumping and water-skiing injuries. John served in the U.S. Army for 51 days before being honorably and medically discharged. He returned home on Christmas Eve 1963. Through a close friend, he was exposed to flying and decided that learning to fly and obtaining a private pilot's license would be experience from which he could gain.
John began flight training at Flying Cloud Airport in Minneapolis where he obtained his private pilot's license. Shortly thereafter, he joined a flying club to work on his instrument rating, eventually earning his commercial and CFI ratings. Along the way he reconnected with a neighbor girl whom he had known growing up. He and Mary Madison were married in October 1964.
Though he had been bitten by the flying bug, it had not occurred to him that he could become an airline pilot. It was a disagreement with a boss about overtime that led John to quit his job and devote his time and efforts to obtaining his CFI and pursuing a career in flying. Despite a new wife, a house payment, a car payment and no job, together, John and Mary made his career happen.
In February 1967, the stars aligned and John was hired at North Central Airlines in Minneapolis, MInn. He began as a co-pilot on the Convair 440, then a brief stint in the right seat of the DC-3, back to the Convair 580, then on to the right seat of the DC-9. He upgraded to DC-9 captain in 1981, and in 1994 on the 757. Along the way, North Central merged with Southern and Hughes Airwest to become Republic Airlines. Eventually in 1986, it merged with Northwest Orient becoming Northwest Airlines.
In the fall of 1970, fate landed in the laps of John and Mary’s when the farm adjacent to John’s family farm became available for sale. They purchased it and moved there with their 2-year-old son, Tim. The farm had room for a runway and one was promptly and expertly built. In 1974, they welcomed the addition of nicely sized hangar and a beautiful little blond daughter they named Heidi. John and Mary would live out their married years farming, enjoying family, and flying.
Sadly, at age 56, in the spring of 1997, John was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He navigated death nobly as he had navigated life – self-deprecating while accepting cancer had won, John passed away on March 12,1997.
Though John had never aspired to be more than an average guy, he was so much more than that. John had always been about what was truly right. He volunteered at church, for the 4-H Club, and always helped neighbors and friends. He made time for everyone and was a faithful servant of the earth through his farming responsibilities. Plus, he had given many airplane rides and never accepted a dime as reimbursement.
After John's passing, Heidi graduated from college and Tim was recalled to American Airlines after a three-and-a-half-year furlough. Tim was married that fall and Heidi joined the work force. Over the next two years Mary built a new house on the family property and Tim, in addition to his AA career and his wife took over the farming operations, their home farm, hangars, runway and airplanes.
In December 2005, Tim came home from a trip with a festive pair of epaulets that were red with green stripes connoting the joy and spirit of Christmas and the holiday season. As a lifelong, ambitious sewer and craftsperson, Mary said, “I could make them with stuff I have in my closet.” She produced ten pairs of “Christmas Epaulets” which Tim took to work and sold for $10 per pair, bringing home $100 to Mary. She said, “I can’t accept this with what little time and materials I put into them. Let’s give it to the local Chetek Scholarship Foundation in memory of Dad!” That launched the charitable function of “Christmas Epaulets in Memory of Captain John H. Knutson.”
How are they made and by whom
For a couple of years, Mary worked diligently making epaulets, first a hundred at a time, and eventually 600 thinking that those would last for several years. But they were catching on! A very close and dear friend who flies for UPS was pushing them as was Tim at work at American Airlines. Before long, a Facebook page started followed by a website. After only two or three years, Mary was overwhelmed compelling the hunt for a different manufacturer. A local business in Chetek, Wisc. that does commercial sewing was very accommodating and took over production for a couple of years. Time passed and the business changed bringing Christmas Epaulets back into a local household.
This was when Lois and Bob Hartmann took over production and a commercial grade double-needle sewing machine was purchased and donated by Mary Knutson for the production of the specialty epaulets. In their 70s and retired, Bob and Lois loved working together doing sewing projects and helping charities along the way. They manufactured every epaulet impeccably for many years and were truly a joy to know. In December 2019, Bob passed away and Lois passed along the production of epaulets to another wonderful local lady in the adjacent town of Weyerhaeuser, Wisc. Diane Scott made all of the epaulet for three years in her home and was also a devoted and committed servant to this program. But alas, the demands of Christmas Epaulets took their toll on Diane and Christmas Epaulets was lucky enough to find a new home with a professional sewer in the summer of 2023. Melissa Bekkum has been a professional seamstress for her entire life, is an expert on sewing machines and in production out of her own home. Everyone who has produced the epaulets is paid about $1.30 per epaulet, bringing the actual real cost of a pair of epaulets to a little over $3.00 per pair.
Who does it help and how
For those first several years, all profits were given to the Chetek Scholarship Foundation, a locally based 501 c(3) organization that raises and manages money to be used for the awarding of scholarships for higher education purposes to graduates of what was then the Chetek High School – the school from which John, Mary, and both their children and their spouses had graduated. Last year, I what is now called Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School/Middle School (with an enrollment of 949), graduating seniors received over $40,000 toward higher-education opportunities. Since the beginning of Christmas Epaulets, over $100,000 has been given to the general fund of the foundation in memory of Captain John H. Knutson. You can learn more about the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser Scholarship Foundation at http://chetekscholarships.com.
In the early years of Christmas Epaulets, Tim Knutson had started volunteering with the American Airlines Military and Veterans Initiatives program. Through his involvement with and awareness of this program, it was decided that the epaulets would now be $20 per pair with half of all profits donated to the Gary Sinise Foundation and their Snowball Express initiative. This was and has been a perfect avenue to memorialize the life and mission of Captain John H. Knutson – to help graduates of his alma mater and also give a patriotic and helpful boost to an incredible charity that is devoted to helping the families of our country’s fallen heroes.
The Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express serves the surviving spouse/guardian and children of fallen heroes. They are committed to year-round programming and support for families that honor their fallen hero, encouraging them to make new memories, and provides opportunities to connect with others who know what they’ve been through. Every year in early December, American Airlines and Envoy Air start from all points throughout the U.S.A. picking up the families of our fallen heroes bringing them together in Orlando, Fla. to bond, heal, share and enjoy. The Gary Sinise Foundation has recently added another round of this event for first-resonders’ families as well. Christmas Epaulets in Memory of Captain John H Knutson has donated just over $70,000 to this worthy endeavor. It seems that every year the donation level for Snowball and for CWSF is between $10,000 and $15,000. To learn more about the Gary Sinise Foundation and Snowball Express, go to https://www.garysinisefoundation.org/snowball-express.
How to participate and where does it go from here
Lots of streamlining and evolution have taken place in the process of getting the word out on Christmas Epaulets in Memory of Captain John H. Knutson. It started with Facebook and a website, growing by word-of-mouth through personal contacts in the airline industry. Many airlines have been very supportive in putting the word out to their pilot groups with a link to the website. Many different pilot unions put the information out to their members as well. For the past two years, Christmas Epaulets has been represented at the RTAG conference in Fort Worth, Texas and talked to pilots and airlines’ represenratives about their program and its outreach, goals and accomplishments.
After the epaulets are manufactured, they are prepared and packaged by Tim’s wife Dawn, Mary Knutson (John’s widow), Heidi Kodesh (John’s daughter) and students of the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School. All order processing and shipping are handled by Dawn right in her kitchen. Paypal and Venmo have been added as payment methods.
If you’re asking how you can participate, it’s easy. Go to http://christmasepaulets.com and follow the instructions. You can order as many as you’d like – for yourself, your friends, to give away to people who you don’t even know, to hang on your tree, your bulletin board, or pin them anywhere that you’re proud to say you’ve supported a couple of great charities in memory of a man who just made a difference. If you have a contact or the ability to share the link to the website with friends, family, coworkers, or just about anyone or group who cares about making a difference, do so! We are thankful for your support and interest, and we very much look forward to seeing you out there wearing your Christmas Epaulets (between Thanksgiving and New Years) bringing joy to the entire world while flying people and products to where they need to go.