The people who knew and loved Charles Downey repeatedly use the same words to describe him: Quiet. Gentle. Kind.
They’re characteristics one might expect of the Latter-day Saint who made over 500 hats for newborn babies before he died on July 17, 2023, steadily knitting stitch after stitch despite the kidney failure that necessitated long dialysis treatments.
“He was so proud of those hats to give to those little babies,” said his wife, Cathy Downey. “... When I look at [his] chair, I want to see him sitting there, making those hats.”
Samone Ratcliff, a JustServe specialist in the Lexington Kentucky Stake, added that Charles Downey was “steady as a rock, in the background, always.”
In the weeks since Charles Downey’s passing, Cathy Downey and Ratcliff have reflected on his life, testimony and legacy. From visiting widows to giving priesthood blessings, Charles Downey routinely stepped up and served wherever he saw a need, they both said.
“He was a wonderful man,” Cathy Downey said. “... I’m having a really difficult time with not having him.”
Charles Downey’s life
Charles Downey was born Oct. 9, 1939, in Bath County, Kentucky. One of 12 children, his father died when he was young, and he gave up his education so he could help provide for his siblings, Cathy Downey said. He later learned to read and worked on his GED.
A lack of formal education never stopped him from learning and being a hard worker. The owner of the factory where he worked for many years said he’d give up 100 men with degrees for 10 more men like Downey, Ratcliff recounted.
Charles Downey met Cathy one night at a local Tastee-Freez. For him, it was “love at first sight,” Cathy Downey said; but she wasn’t impressed with the “homebody” who was so quiet on their first date that she found an excuse to go home early.
The next day, though, he came to her softball game and sat in the hot sun for hours watching her play. After, she agreed to let him drive her home, and the rest was history.
Cathy Downey introduced him to the Church during their courtship, and he was baptized in a creek on a cold October day. Though they couldn’t be married in the temple because he had been a Church member less than a year, later they and their children were sealed.
The Downeys raised three girls. Cathy Downey said her husband was a gentle, caring father who adored his daughters and enjoyed teaching them about nature.
He was also a considerate husband, Cathy Downey said, who did things like surprising her with wildflowers he picked himself. “In 46 years, he never raised his voice to me. ... He had the patience of Job.”
Charles Downey was someone who lived his testimony more than he spoke it out loud, she added. From the time that he was baptized, he consistently attended his meetings, held family prayer and scripture study, and honored his priesthood, she said.
He also baptized most of his grandchildren and gave them each blessings before new school years started, Cathy Downey continued. They even had nonmember neighbors who routinely asked him for blessings because they felt such a difference when he blessed them.
‘That’s what service does’
Cathy Downey said her husband began knitting in 2005 after being hit by a car while crossing a street. The accident nearly took his life and resulted in surgeons placing a rod in his leg.
During the long recovery process, a friend taught him how to knit hats for babies on round looms. Ratcliff said this helped him relearn dexterity with his hands, a skill he valued because he kept bees, hunted rabbits and was a “master gardener.”
At that time, he knitted around 200 hats, Cathy Downey said. Then, when he began dialysis treatments about a year ago, he learned his health didn’t prevent him from knitting — and that Ratcliff, his local JustServe specialist, could distribute his hats to babies in need.
Cathy Downey recalled the big recliner Charles Downey sat in while knitting, the totes of yarn and the many colors his hats were. He made the hats in batches of 50, passing each set off to Ratcliff for distribution at hospitals.
Knitting hats helped Charles Downey feel like he was contributing something meaningful even as his health declined, Cathy Downey said.
His example taught Cathy Downey and her children that “no matter what situation you get in your life, no matter what happens to you, there is always something you can do for others,” she said. “And it makes you feel so good to be able to serve.”
Ratcliff added that making hats probably helped Charles Downey as much as it helped local babies. The service project gave him a sense of worth and purpose, “and that’s what service does,” she said.
“He loved the idea of those hats going to children and helping them, and it sure got him through some bad days.”