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Her second wind breathes life into treasured dolls

[Times photos: Douglas Clifford]
Ada "Ruth" Gauthier inspects a doll's head while restoring it at her shop.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


PORT RICHEY -- Paul Dierking stands before a collection of severed limbs, chipped porcelain and decapitated, undressed stuffed bodies he found stowed in cardboard boxes in his attic.

The neglected parts belong to three dolls that were cuddled, carried, dressed up, and showered with affection by members of his family for nearly 100 years.

He sees in the broken pieces the chance to link five of his family's generations. He sees the chance to put the dolls once adored by his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother in the arms of his two daughters and his daughter-in-law.

photo
The eyes are part of Gauthier's collection of body parts for making and mending dolls.
"It's part of our ancestry," said Dierking, 73, a retired school superintendent from Illinois who now lives in Port Richey. "They have a certain amount of sentimental value and a certain amount of (dollar) value."

His only hope to restore that value is Ada "Ruth" Gauthier, owner of Doll Construction & More.

During the past three years, Gauthier, 59, has sat in her small shop tucked in Richey Plaza on U.S. 19, restoring such hopes. Her tools surround her: paintbrushes, spools of lace, Rubbermaid containers bursting with buttons and the Futura Singer sewing machine she bought 30 years ago.

With detached heads, arms, legs and torsos at her elbows, she holds a face between her fingers and up to the light for inspection:

"Isn't she beautiful?"

Gauthier says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where her love for dolls was born.

Maybe it happened while she was the eldest of six children, growing up on a farm in Transylvania County, N.C.

Maybe it goes back to when she gave her 3-year-old daughter Katherine her first Chatty Cathy doll -- and she became an instant playmate. Maybe Gauthier's love for dolls goes back to Barbie after Barbie after newfangled Barbie that filled their home.

Certainly it goes back to 1997, when Gauthier retired from 15 years of service as secretary to Pasco's Clerk of Court Jed Pittman. Health problems caused her to quit, but after a year, she started getting restless, and returned to what she had learned when she had taken dollmaking classes in the early 1980s.

Gauthier loved everything about dollmaking. She loved the challenge of cleaning the bare shells for the dolls without cracking them, pouring over the porcelain slip, firing it in the kiln, cleaning and painting it. She loved putting the bodies together and dressing them.

"It's a real challenge," she says. "I feel like I have a new baby every time. I don't care how many times you make one doll, each time it's just a little bit different. You can never make the same doll twice.

"My favorite part is the painting; that's when you get to make it into an individual."

Gauthier put doll after doll after doll together, and by 1998, she had decided to turn that love into a business. That year she opened her shop at 7123 U.S. 19. Customers could start buying the dolls she made for $115 to $250 each. They could spend four days spread out over four weeks to make their dolls for about $60 to $130 each. They could come in to take free dollmaking classes as soon as they told Gauthier that they wanted her to show them how.

Gauthier says she loves doll restoration -- which makes up about 45 percent of her business -- just as much as she loves making them from scratch.

"I love taking an old doll that seems cracked beyond repair," she says, "and bringing back something that's positively hideous into something that's really quite beautiful."

- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblatt@sptimes.com.

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