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Friday, Mar. 22, 2013

Overland Park knitter’s hat legacy will continue to keep Head Start kids warm

Special to The Star

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How to help For information on knitting caps for Margie Kurogi’s Head Start project, call Allyson Ermoian at 913-957-1380.

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The red leather chair where 65-year-old Margie Kurogi sat is empty. Barely visible is the imprint left on the seat from the woman who occupied it for years.

Scattered around the chair are instruments of Kurogi’s work. An oversized mug holds a bunch of knitting needles. Oblong skeins and plump balls of yarn create a tiny, plush mountain.

Colorful knitted caps are gathered into a small pile on the floor. A Jayhawk red-and-blue hat lies on top of a dazzling lemon meringue yellow and green one. A neon pink cap adorned with a fuzzy tassel peeks out from the bottom.

To the untrained eye the bright yellow yarn trailing from one needle doesn’t have shape or meaning.

But Denny Kurogi knows his wife, who passed away unexpectedly in her sleep on March 4, envisioned a child’s hat emerging from that bit of yarn.

“Margie literally spent hours each day sitting in her red chair, knitting hats with love,” he said. “...She genuinely loved every child who came into her life. During the past few years she had a special place in her heart for less fortunate kids in the Head Start program.”

Now Kurogi’s friends are working to keep that expression of her love going.

Children in Kurogi’s popular former home daycare business in Overland Park and the kids at Head Start in Kansas City, Kan., called her “Miss Margie.” She was a hat architect.

For six years Kurogi knitted hats that kept heads toasty during the winter. Recipients even wore them during warm weather months as a fashion statement.

“Kids loved getting anything Miss Margie knitted,” her husband said.

Elyse Biethman, 23, was one of those kids. Kurogi babysat Elyse, now a nurse in the University of Kansas Hospital emergency room, from the time she was six weeks old through her early teen years.

“She practically raised me — I even called her my ‘daytime mommy,’” Biethman said. “Margie knitted me lots of sweaters and things.”

Biethman and her mother are taking charge of keeping Kurogi’s Head Start hat project moving forward.

“We have yarn and some of the patterns,” Biethman said.

Before her death, Kurogi had completed 48 hats that she planned to give to students at the Head Start Bryant Center later this year.

Her best friend, Allyson Ermoian of Shawnee, is the center supervisor and family service advocate at the Economic Opportunity Foundation-Head Start program. The two met in 2003 at the Johnson County Community College Hiersteiner Child Development Center, where Ermoian taught and Kurogi was a substitute teacher.

They became friends instantly. Their fun-loving antics and constant laughter earned them the nickname of “Lucy and Ethel.”

“We were always cooking up something,” laughed Ermoian.

One day they sat on Margie’s front porch, brainstorming about what she could do for Ermoian’s kids at Head Start.

“I left JCCC to go to Head Start, my passion,” said Ermoian. “And Margie, who had for years knitted children’s sweaters that were auctioned off in fundraisers or given to friends and family, wanted to knit for them.”

The two came up with the idea of hats — something many of the KCK Head Start attendees didn’t own.

“The hats were always amazing, so detailed and creative,” said Ermoian.

At one time she owned a Miss Margie original, but earlier this year gave it away to a child who lost his.

“I have Margie’s bag, though,” said Ermoian, clutching the red Hawaiian-print bag that once carried treats and storybooks for the Head Start kids. “We call it the Mary Poppins bag. Denny wanted to make sure I had it.”

Kurogi started knitting hats — snuggled into her red leather chair — in February and didn’t stop until the beginning of December when she gift wrapped and toted them to Head Start.

Ermoian describes the scene the week before Christmas when Kurogi descended on the school like a jolly hat Santa.

“She loved to read and always had a story to tell the kids before she distributed the hats,” said Ermoian. “Margie captivated them. Their eyes lit up and they squealed with joy when she presented the hats.”

Ermoian doesn’t knit but has faith the rest of the hats will be completed for the seven classrooms of kids at Bryant Center in time for Christmas.

“I know people will come forward who want to keep Margie’s dream going,” she said.

One woman rallying knitters for the cause is Nancy Trussell, an employee at the JCCC Child Development Center who became acquainted with Kurogi over the years. Trussell was moved when she saw pictures of some completed caps on Kurogi’s Facebook page a week before her death.

Trussell doesn’t knit, but knows people who do.

“I’ve asked the knitting group at the church I attend, Grace Covenant Presbyterian, to consider keeping this wonderful legacy going,” said Trussell.

Denny Kurogi misses his wife with all his heart and soul, but he knows kids at the Bryant Center will have a hat inspired by Miss Margie come Christmas thanks to Biethman and Trussell’s efforts.

“That’s what was important to Margie,” he said. “Those kids.”

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