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Orrin Hellickson's ability to survive a myriad of diseases and major surgeries

has prompted acquaintances to

dub him the "bionic man."

But the 82-year-old retired Hammond steelworker attributes his longevity in

part to being "lucky enough" to

have found the perfect pastime -- woodworking.

It's a hobby he says keeps his hands busy and his mind off major health


Hellickson said he's put aside his physical infirmities during the last 18

years and honed his skills to become a

master toymaker who supplies needy children with hand-created playthings -- an

interest he came about "by


"Ten days after I retired from Inland Steel (1982) , I had a major heart attack

that led to bypass surgery,"

Hellickson said. "After physical rehab, my doctors said I needed to keep busy.

They told me I should find a


Although Hellickson had never done much woodworking before, he said, "I tried

my hand at making toys and

was pretty happy with the end result."

He started by taking completed projects to arts and craft shows, but eventually

found another avenue to

distribute his handiwork.

"I found myself making miniature trucks for local trucking companies (on

request)," Hellickson said. "The

trucking companies would send me pictures of their trucks, and I would make a

facsimile of that 18- or


During the years, Hellickson estimates he's made hundreds of the mini-semis.

Hellickson also began making toys for the U.S. Marines Corps' annual "Toys for

Tots" program.

He said a "few interruptions" have sidelined him from indulging in his pastime,

namely radiation treatments for

colon cancer and surgeries for a benign brain tumor, carpel tunnel syndrome and

two knee replacements.

He also had a pacemaker implanted to correct an irregular heartbeat, was

recently diagnosed with

Parkinson's disease, and is being treated for diabetes.

But Hellickson said none of the health issues has kept him from losing

enthusiasm for his craft, adding he gets

great satisfaction knowing he's made more than a few children happy every


Before he starts his projects, Hellickson said he shops carefully for the right

kind of wood.

"I only use the best (woods) ... hard maple and red oak," Hellickson said. "The

type of wood definitely

ensures a quality product."

Hellickson's works include wooden trains, finely crafted hobby horses, cradles

and doll swings.

"I use no patterns for what I make," Hellickson said. "Guess you could say

they're my own designs."

While he engineers making most of the toys, he credits his wife Shirley with

often lending him a helping hand.

Small toys usually take Hellickson a week to make.

"The bigger ones, like the trucks I make, can take up to three weeks,"

Hellickson said.

Steve Franek, president of the Northwest Indiana Woodworking Association, said

Hellickson's handiwork

speaks for itself.

"Orrin is a fantastic woodworker. His projects are unique, especially the

miniature rigs he makes for trucking

firms. They're really well made. Some company officials put them on their

mantles, kind of like a trophy,"

Franek said.

Franek said Hellickson also manages to volunteer time to the association.

"He's been a valued member of our club since 1991," Franek said.

Hellickson said woodworking lifts his spirits and helps him contend with

day-to-day stresses.

"It's been very therapeutic for me ... kept me occupied, and my doctors tell me

it's definitely helped me beat

the odds," Hellickson said. "Long as the good Lord is willing, I'll be doing

this for a very long time. I love life

and try not to waste one precious day," he said.

Adele Mackanos can be reached at or at (219) 662-5338.Banta

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