The puppet man

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Bill Earney and his wife Nancy got into the mask-making game, and by the spring of 2021, they’d given away over 3,000 of them. When demand started to taper off, Bill moved on to another specialty and earned himself a nickname in the process — the puppet man.

Earney, a retired mechanical engineer who spent most of his career with Fisher Controls, also picked up a new hobby repairing sewing machines for free through the process, even donating several to the Salvation Army.

Of all of his projects, however, it’s the sock puppets that bring him the most joy, and local kids seem to love them too.

“The best thing we do is I take a sack of them into the grocery store, Menard’s or Wal-Mart. You see a kid, and you get them in the parking lot,” he said. “The other day, two little girls, they were just overjoyed. Dad said, ‘I want your name and address, because they need to write a thank you note.’ The kids’ faces are the best part of it all… I tell all the kids ‘Be careful, they’ll bite.’”

The inspiration for puppet making came when Earney crafted a mask for his great-granddaughter and named it Ollie after the classic character from the puppet-based television show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” When she kept asking for Ollie, he noticed he still had material from his masks and just started making puppets.

According to Nancy, Bill doesn’t want any help from her on his puppets, and she calls herself strictly a “quality control” person. He works on them between five and six hours a day.

“I think this is just another way of being productive. You get to your late 70s, and sometimes you don’t feel like you’re doing enough,” Nancy said. “This is a way that helps him feel like he’s giving something back, and he so enjoys the kids… It’s a passion for him.”

With his continuously prolific output, Earney has nearly run local thrift stores out of materials, and he says he’s “getting picky” about which fabric he chooses now. He’s about to give away 200 more puppets as stocking stuffers for local children through the Salvation Army, and he’s always looking for more kids who might want them.

While Nancy was already a seasoned quilter and sewer before the pandemic, Bill picked his new skill set up on the fly and applied his mechanical background to the process of fixing sewing machines. He also credits a YouTuber and fellow senior citizen known as Tony Tube with helping him to better understand the machines.

After his retirement from Fisher, Earney, a self-admitted workaholic, ran his own engineering consulting firm for eight years, and he’s never really slowed down since. All he knows is he loves what he’s doing, and he loves being in Marshalltown.

“We bought a cabin in the Ozarks thinking we might go there. It was okay, but it wasn’t our hometown. This is our hometown. We’ve lived here 50 or 60 years now,” Earney said.

Whether it’s hearing aid friendly masks, unique handcrafted puppets or a job fixing another sewing machine, Earney will just keep plugging away, and there’s no doubt he’ll be enjoying himself in the meantime.

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Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or rmaharry@timesrepublican.com