MINNEAPOLIS >> Glenn Pettit’s hands have never stopped working. Active and dexterous, they’ve been finding interesting things to do for more than 100 years.
“I’ve always worked with these things,” he said, waving his hands up and down.
As a boy, Pettit wielded tools given him by his dentist father to take all kinds of things apart — and usually put them back together. During World War II, Pettit’s hands repaired gun turrets on B-29 bombers in Texas and Colorado. For decades after the war, until retiring in 1982, Pettit and his hands kept boilers boiling and steam churning at several manufacturing companies from Michigan to Minnesota. Even after retirement he kept busy, volunteering as a handyman at his church and churning out projects from his basement workshop.
So it stands to reason that when Pettit and his wife, Phyllis, moved from their house to a senior apartment community in Bloomington, Minn. — prompting him to shed a basement full of tools — his hands needed something new to do. Harking back to a class he took while living in Rockford, Ill., he turned to scratchboarding.
Scratchboard is a type of engraving in which the artist scratches off dark ink or paint to reveal a white or colored layer beneath. Scratchboard refers to both a fine-art medium and a technique in pottery, using sharp knives and tools to engrave into a thin layer of white China clay coated with dark ink.
Using a hobby knife and meticulous attention to detail, Pettit has over the past few years created dozens of pieces of art, from portraits of Minnehaha Falls to loons by a lake and the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis. Pettit, who lost his wife of 77 years in May and turned 100 in July, said scratchboarding appealed more than watercolors or other media because you use tools to make the pictures.
“It’s mechanical, pretty mechanical,” said the high school graduate, who learned everything he knows about how things work by doing the work. “That appeals to me.”
His workshop now is a counter off the small kitchen in his second-floor Bloomington apartment. Where he once scratched images from memory, Pettit now uses photographs from magazines and newspapers as his scratchboard models.
Several of Pettit’s creations have been donated and sold to support his church, Oak Grove Presbyterian in Bloomington.
The Rev. Mary Koon, associate pastor at Oak Grove, said Pettit’s ability to not only stay active, but to continue actively learning new skills and abilities into his second century is a wonder.
“Glenn is one of the most inspiring people I know,” she said.
Pettit and several other retired men once comprised “the Wiseguys,” a group of volunteers with tools in hand who saved the church thousands of dollars in maintenance and repair costs over the years, Koon said. She once spied Pettit, who fixed boilers and plugged leaks well into his 90s, climbing a ladder for some repair job.
“He said, ‘Shhh, don’t tell Phyllis,’” Koon said.
Another time, she said she saw him running from one part of the church to another. She asked him why he was running. “Because I can,” she recalled Pettit saying.
Asked how he remains so spry, Pettit credits walking. He still climbs the stairs to his apartment daily and regularly hoofs to a nearby strip mall to shop and chat with people he meets — nowadays wearing a mask and keeping 6 feet away.
Beth Angerhofer, the soon-to-retire office administrator at Oak Grove, said that when she started at the church 11 years ago, she was instructed, “Anytime you need something fixed, you come to Glenn.”
He only stopped his work with the Wiseguys, she said, after he stopped driving a few years ago. Pettit said he agreed to stop driving only after the transmission died in his car.
“He could be a very abrupt guy,” Angerhofer said. “But if you get on his good side …”
Angerhofer, who described herself as a hugger (before COVID), had a hard time winning over Pettit.
“He never wanted to be hugged,” she said.
Then, after about a year of talking to the Wiseguys and bringing treats, she managed to force Pettit’s surrender. “He finally let me hug him.”
Pettit is one of three centenarians at Oak Grove, Koon said. The church last month was planning a webcast celebration to honor them and all of Oak Grove’s members who are 80 or older. He has been “a faithful and strong member here,” she said of the man who continues to donate his labor to the church’s well-being.
One of his donated scratchboard pictures — of a Two Harbors steam tug named Edna G. — sold at auction for $150.
“He is just the perfect example of people who keep learning — and doing — through the generations,” Koon said.
Pettit, who still plays cribbage and enjoys an occasional whiskey, said he has no plans to idle his hands anytime soon.
“When we moved here, I thought it would be for about 10 years,” he said, putting fine points on a scratchboard of a train on a trestle bridge. “Now I’m guessing I got three or four years yet.”