Joseph Hall walked into Causeway Alterations at the beginning of January with a strange request.
The 96-year-old veteran still had his original U.S. Navy uniform that he wore when he enlisted in 1941. He wanted to be buried in it, but it no longer fit.
Could someone there make a new one?
Seamstress Susan Williams heard him while working in the back of the shop. Her father had been in the Navy in Korea, and she remembered what his uniform looked like.
She poked her head out and asked, “Dress blue or white?”
Thus began a monthlong project to fulfill Hall’s dream, a tribute to the men he once served with and still missed.
“We were overseas together over three years before we got back home,” he said. “I feel this makes me more like I’m with them when I pass away. I want to join them again.”
Williams, a retired prosecutor from Pennsylvania, has been sewing for 46 of her 57 years. She started working at the alterations shop in December to have something fun to do. The project challenged her.
“I have never in my life been asked for such a thing,” Williams said. “It kind of took me aback…I had a hard time not being emotional about it.”
Finding the right materials was difficult — the coronavirus pandemic has caused a fabric shortage. So, the Tarpon Springs resident drove to Sarasota twice in her quest for the exact shade of navy, spending about eight hours in the car. While she couldn’t find the original wool and silk, she purchased a near-identical polyester and poly satin.
“I had a heck of a time finding navy blue, the correct U.S. navy blue,” she said. “It’s not an easy navy blue to find.”
To nail the construction, Williams watched YouTube videos to learn different hand embroidery stitches. She scoured U.S. Navy websites and Facebook groups dedicated to historical costuming and war reenactments. If she finished a part and felt unsatisfied, she started over.
A few details were updated — Williams made modern pants with a zipper instead of using 13 buttons for each of the colonies. But most of the new uniform was very similar to the original.
“I wanted to make it as dignified as he is,” she said. “There are no shortcuts on this.”
The materials cost $270, though Williams only asked for $400 for the entire project.
“If it was a person off the street who was ordering a custom suit, it would not be $400. I can tell you that,” she said with a laugh. “But this is a special man.”
On Wednesday, Hall came to pick up the completed uniform. He tried it on, emerging from the dressing room in the back of the shop with a grin.
Williams helped him secure a black tie around his neck. Then he headed to the front of the shop to see the full outfit in a floor-length three-way mirror.
“I look kind of thin,” he said, beaming at his reflection.
He turned to Williams and blew her a kiss. “You did a wonderful job.”
Hall lives alone at Mediterranean Manors. His wife of 67 years passed away three years ago, and all of his former crew mates are gone. He turns 97 in March.
“I have nobody to celebrate with. I’m the last,” he said.
But putting on the uniform put a smile on his face.
“It’s making my heart beat,” he said. “It brings back memories of my crew.”
The smile lasted long after he had changed back into blue jeans and a purple plaid button up. It stayed on as Williams walked him to his car and helped him hang his uniform over the backseat. It lasted as she hugged him in the parking lot.
“Don’t be in a hurry to use that,” she told him.
Author: Gabrielle Calise