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The last gift John “Jack” Apland gave his family was a powerful life lesson: Anyone, regardless of age or ability, can make a positive difference in the world.

Apland died at age 89 on Oct. 30. A longtime Belle Fourche resident and rancher, Apland spent the final months of his life battling illness — but found purpose.

Apland and his family launched the "Knots of Love" project — inspired by Apland’s own struggles — that provides blankets for foster children.

Apland had always been an active man who enjoyed sports, ranching and raising his children, his daughter Lisa Wells said. Even being diagnosed with diabetes, and then with a progressive lung disease a few years later, didn’t slow Apland down much. In November 2015, his health started spiraling downward when what was supposed to have been a same-day surgery developed into an infection and then MRSA, a dangerous staph infection.

Apland began 2016 fighting for his life, his daughter said. “Due to the excellent care that he received at Rapid City Regional Hospital as well as Belle Fourche Rehabilitation Center, (Dad) did improve greatly and was cleared of MRSA by spring,” Wells said.

Wells, of Rapid City, her brother and sister-in-law, Dennis and Pam Apland, and her sister Nora Lee Apland were vigilant about visiting and supporting their father during his hospitalization. “He almost didn’t make it,” Wells said. “The hospital staff kept telling us part of reason he alive was he had somebody keeping his spirits up.”

'Virtual hug'

During his months of care, Apland’s family came up with the idea of giving their father a “virtual hug” in the form of a fleece blanket.

“We went out and got blanket material … with a fishing print on it. He loved to fish,” Wells said. “We tied it while he was laying in bed. We spread it on him and took turns tying it and told him to remember wherever he was, (the blanket) was like a big warm hug from people (who loved him).”

Although he overcame MRSA, Apland’s health issues meant he couldn’t return to his own home. He eventually moved to Belle Estates elderly care facility. Apland was happy he could be back in his hometown of Belle Fourche but frustrated that his active lifestyle was largely gone.

“He told me that he was upset. He felt like a worthless lump that couldn’t do anything but tell his kids and others what to do for him, instead of doing it for himself,” Wells said. “It broke my heart.”

Determined to keep her father’s spirits up, Wells shifted his focus. “(We) talked about his entire life, that this past year was a small part of his whole life, how blessed he was with so many good memories, so many people who loved and cared for him, and the great place he was able to live in,” she said.

Apland’s “Knots of Love” blanket project developed out of the conversation. “(We) talked about the people out there that weren’t as lucky, especially children in foster care,” Wells said. “(Dad) had something in common with those kids — he was taken from his home, which was not of his choosing, and had to live somewhere else. However, he was able to choose his alternative and make his own decisions about how he would spend his days.”

In August, Apland and his family set a goal to have 45 blankets completed by Thanksgiving to give foster children. “(We) decided to call his project ‘Knots of Love’ because of the knots tied, but also because he lovingly referred to his kids as ‘knot heads’ when we were acting up,” Wells said.

'Still a part of the world'

Like the fish-print fleece blanket Apland had received, “Knots of Love” blankets would remind children they were cared about. “They would have something of their own, no matter where they were, something that would give them comfort and warmth,” Wells said. “It was something (Dad) could do physically do himself on his terms, according to his abilities.”

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“There was so much he couldn’t do anything about, but so much he could,” Wells said. “It was important to keep him involved and let him know he’s still a part of the world.”

Apland, a mechanic at heart, figured out how to tie knots more efficiently and easily by using needle-nose pliers. Family members and staff members at Belle Estates tied knots with him. Blanket tying became a friendly competition between Apland and Wells, who were each working on “Knots of Love” blankets.

Apland celebrated his 89th birthday on Sept. 16. He was in high spirits, receiving birthday cards from around the United States. He’d taken up painting, as well as his blanket project. “He said, ‘This is the best birthday I can remember. I feel great!’” Wells said.

Then his health took a turn for the worse, and Apland died weeks later. “He had pneumonia again,” Wells said. “Dad worked on three blankets and got one done. Those last few days we were sitting around with him tying blankets.”

Before he died, his children promised Apland they’d complete the blanket project. Friends, family, neighbors and Zion Lutheran Church’s Dorcas Circle bought or made blankets to donate to “Knots of Love” so Apland’s family could keep their promise.

By working with the Department of Social Services, “we were able to deliver 67 blankets on behalf of Dad to children in the foster care program in (Belle Fourche and Sturgis), on time,” Wells said.

Apland’s family plans to continue "Knots of Love" every year in honor of their dad. Wells said the family hopes the blanket project inspires other families to make a positive difference by working together to support causes they believe in. “We want people to find their own way to give,” Wells said. “Dad would like that.”

“Dad proved to himself and others this last year that attitude is a powerful medicine and that no matter your age, circumstances or abilities, everyone has value and can make a difference, if they choose,” Wells said.

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