Johnston resident Timothy Kee may be the most unique and unusual maker of masks that have helped countless Rhode Islanders stay safe during the coronavirus crisis.
For starters, Kee is a Native American – seven-eights Sioux, to be precise – and enjoys sewing, a trait he transformed into a hobby of sorts from lessons he learned many years ago from his family, one that’s steeped in tradition and crafty qualities.
Kee still has relatives that live on a reservation in Popular, Montana, which he and his long-time friend Anthony Ursillo actually visited several years ago. They were amazed to find the Native Americans who live there still making “incredible beading-painting, sewing, pottery-make, jewelry and more.”
“It’s in their bloodlines,” said Ursillo, who lives with Kee at the once-famous Shang Bailey Roadhouse on Hartford Avenue in Johnston. “Even Tim marveled at the old-time Native American traditions and customs that are still being practiced on the reservation.”
A few years ago, Kee took up sewing as a hobby and went to the famous Blaine Sewing Machine Center located on Oaklawn Avenue in Cranston and bought his very first sewing machine – a Bernina. He set up in a section of the multi-room and ageless Roadhouse and is “a very popular name in the [sewing] industry.”
Kee, who is basically self-taught by way of YouTube, also took lessons at the Blaine Sewing Machine Center and began making all types of items such as pocketbooks, pillows, curtains and much, much more.
Before long, Kee decided to take his unique craft to another level and invested in an industrial sewing machine called JUKI, which Ursillo said is capable of 1,000 stitches per minute.
That also led Kee and Ursillo to make many trips to various cloth mills, most notably Pawtucket-based Lorraine Mills where they purchased materials.
At one point in fact, Ursillo asked Kee what he was going to do with all the material – only to receive a clever answer of “future project.”
The most recent initiative found Kee making and donating masks for countless for nurses on the front lines at Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam Hospital and South County Hospital.
When the COVID-19 virus began dominating the local and national news, Kee became well aware of the shortage of masks.
“Tim sat down as his sewing machine and started sewing away,” Ursillo said.
Enter Sue Luz, a nurse and longtime friend of both Kee and Ursillo, who called and asked Tim if he would be willing to donate some of his washable cloth masks to area hospitals and he obliged. “We are all in this situation together; Anthony and I are happy and proud to help out in a small way,” he said.
However, Luz and her associates – as well as staffers at hospitals who have received Kee’s craftsmanship extraordinaire – will tell you there’s nothing small about what Kee has done during the pandemic. He has been ably assisted by Ursillo measuring yards upon yards of cloth the two men personally purchased.
“I have enjoyed being somewhat involved helping to measure and cut material to keep Tim’s assembly line going,” Ursillo mused while neatly arranging a number of multi-colored cloth masks. “This is a process that is much, much more involved than anyone could imagine. It’s endless nights and long hours of dedicated work; we are both so humbled to make these special donations.”
When asked how long it actually takes to make the masks, Kee noted: “Even though my JUKI does 1,000 stitches per minute that is absolutely amazing, it still takes countless hours to make six or seven dozen masks. However, it’s time – and investment for the material – well spent and an honor to help out during this horrific pandemic.” 1
Timothy Kee concentrates on his unique mask-making effort and is surrounded by cloth materials that were cut and measured by his friend Anthony Ursillo so it won’t slow down what has been an extraordinary and heart-warming donation of masks for nurse and front line staffers at area hospitals during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. (Sun Rise photos by Pete Fontaine) 2
This is a small portion of the finished and multi-colored cloth masks made by Johnston resident Timothy Kee that have kept countless front line nurses and staffers at hospitals safe during the coronavirus pandemic. 3
This is a pile of the countless number of cloth masks Timothy Kee has sewn for countless nurses Johnston residence