By Pete Wurdock

When a cancer diagnosis invades our lives, most of us are at a loss for what to do about the non-medical aspects. Moral support can be hard to find, and it is easy to feel lonely and alone. But Newberry resident Judy Panula has been easing that burden for people, one stitch at a time.

Judy does this through her knitting, crochet, and needlepoint. She makes prayer shawls – a wrap that’s essentially a wearable hug – quilts, hats, and scarves.

The quilts are made by request. Patterns and fabrics take on their own theme in her work, always in step with the person who will receive her gift. The creations may feature paw prints for dog lovers, logos of favorite college teams, a beloved home state, a treasured hobby, or a branch of the military where they serve.

Born and raised in Newberry, Judy Schultz Panula came from a family with six kids. Aside from shoes and boots, her mother made all of their clothes. As a child she learned embroidery, sewing, and mending from her mother and grandmother. She learned a deep love of books from her father.

Judy received her own cancer diagnosis 25 years ago, and the dark days of recovery are behind her. She’s been a light for those with cancer, and she knows what she is talking about. “There are so many uncertainties when you are dealing with cancer,” Judy reflects. “It can be going along perfectly one day and the next a single cell can go wild and change everything.”

She refused to let doubt get under her skin. “We have no control over when it’s our time. I read up on my cancer until I knew everything there was to know about it,” she said. “If you are knowledgeable about what you have, you have less fear. It’s not that you are not going to be afraid to die, but you’ll have less fear if you are knowledgeable about it and what’s going on.”

During her fight against cancer, Judy was in Marquette for seven and a half weeks of aggressive treatments. During her stay at the Beacon House, the chemo and radiation reduced her diet to yogurt and milkshakes. She was grateful for the medical care, but admits there was a time when she was ornery.

One day a cancer-stricken boy came into the treatment room and boldly asked: “Hey lady! Where’s your barf bag?”

Judy wasn’t sure how to reply. As the little boy got ready for his treatment, he continued: “My mom gets really upset if I barf in the car. Ya gotta have a barf bag, lady!”

Judy didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But that moment was a turning point for her. It provided her with the clarity she needed.

During her treatments, someone gifted her a hat earmarked for cancer patients made by a knitting guild in Marquette. She was moved by the gesture of a stranger and eventually formed her own guild at Trinity Lutheran Church in Newberry.

“It created a way for me to give back,” she said. “I’d make 10 or 12 hats and drop them off at the Beacon House whenever I went to town to see my son, who was a student at Northern.”

Judy made quilts and organized small groups of women to make prayer shawls to give away. By December 2009, more than 500 prayer shawls had been made, and that number has grown exponentially. She made 1,500 masks that were distributed during the Covid pandemic.

Judy’s shawl creation count has just reached 70, while her quilt output is in the hundreds. Today it is impossible for Judy to guess how many items have been created, blessed, and sent. Each one has been a statement of faith and a testimony of her strong belief in God and the power of prayer.

Her quilts have been sent to almost every state, each made especially for the recipient.

It didn’t take long for people to find Judy. Strangers would call the church and ask for the “quilt lady,” and Judy would put things into motion. People donate fabric or money for supplies, and Judy never sells her creations.

In addition to the cancer patients, the handmade gifts also celebrate baptisms, graduations, and marriages. Some are given with concern after the death of a loved one, to someone who has taken ill, or to those going through a struggle.

After her husband passed, she kept going. When she lost her son last year, she worked through her grieving process with a loving family and friends and by giving her gift to others because she was filled with joy that God helped her get through things.

“My faith grows with each stitch as I remember God’s promises,” she said.

Author’s note: Between the time of this interview and when this article was published, Judy accepted a special quilt product for my friend Carol, who lives in Florida and is battling breast cancer. A copy of this article will accompany the quilt Judy made for her.