INDIANAPOLIS — She wheels her way between the display cases with ease, steering herself toward the creations she knows came from her kitchen.
She recognizes them even from across the room, certain they’re hers without even seeing the name tag attached to them.
Three trays of cookies. Fourteen cakes. Nearly two dozen pies of various varieties. She points each out, grinning wide as she rattles off tidbits about each of her recipes.
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Mary Alice Collins, a Hancock County native, is marking her 58th year entering baking contests at the Indiana State Fair. She submitted upward of 50 recipes this year despite a remarkable challenge.
The 78-year-old lost use of both hands and legs in 2015 after suffering septic shock. Doctors amputated all ten of her fingers and both legs below the knee. It took months of therapy and practice to teach herself to bake again.
She never gave up, she said. And she’ll be back next year, too.
She hopes to reach a 60th year at the state fair before she finally retires. She’ll be 80 by then and ready to slow down, she said.
And she has a message for others facing their own challenges:
“You can do anything, no matter what your handicap is,” Collins said.
A history of hard work
Collins learned to bake at her mother’s side, in the kitchen of her family’s little farm house in Hancock County.
She spent 10 years in 4-H, most often entering projects in the sewing and baking contests. She learned her mother’s tricks, practiced her recipes and eventually fell in love with the craft, feeding an inner desire to carry on her mother’s traditions and legacy.
Collins attended Purdue University, studying to be a home economics teacher. She worked for years in the family and consumer sciences department at what is now Greenfield-Central High School.
During the summers, when her students were away and her classroom was empty, Collins focused her attention on the Indiana State Fair.
She began entering contests in the 1950s, she said. It all started with a sewing project — a suit she’d made for her husband, Darl — that won a top prize. As time went by, she added cookies to her list of entries, then cakes and pies.
And she was successful, she admits with a humble smile. The judges often favored her creations, awarding her purple and blue ribbons in every category, from coffee cakes to sugar cream pies. In 2014, after 56 years of baking for state fair contests, Collins was named a state fair master — a title handed out annually to longtime fair participants who are considered experts in their craft. Collins was named a master baker.
In 2015, she entered dozens of recipes, brought home as many prizes declaring it another successful summer.
But as fall set in, her world turned upside.
A tragic emergency
Days after the 2015 state fair came to a close, Collins and her husband headed to Springfield, Illinois, on a mission trip with a nonprofit Christian organization they’ve served with for years.
On one of the first nights in the new city, Collins began to feel ill, she said. She sat out of a few gatherings and meetings they’d planned with other members, choosing instead to stay in the little bed in their RV and rest.
The hours seemed to drag by, she said, and her condition only worsened. Eventually, Darl called 911 for help, and Mary Alice was rushed to a local hospital.
The doctors knew almost immediately what was wrong, Collins said. She was severely dehydrated and her body wasn’t responding to the fluids doctors were pumping into her, she said.
She’d slipped into septic shock — a life-threatening condition that causes organs to shut down and blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels. Her kidneys stopped working and her fingers and legs began to turn black.
It was a terrifying time, Collins’ niece, Denise Jones, said. For days, the family wasn’t sure if Collins would pull through. They sat in the hospital in Springfield, worriedly waiting and praying.
Doctors ended up amputating both of Collins’ legs below the knee and all ten of her fingers in order to control an infection that set in. She was stuck in the hospital for more than a month as she recovered and began physical therapy.
But Collins returned to Hancock County with a new goal in mind: she was determined to be well enough to bake again for the Indiana State Fair.
And so she did just that.
With a positive attitude and a little extra help from her husband, Collins came to the 2016 Indiana State Fair with an array for cookies, pies and cakes to enter in contest.
It took a little more work, a bit of practice, Collins said. But she was utterly pleased with that first batch of entries, the ones she’d created with no hands and without legs to hold her up at the counter for the first time.
She and Darl returned to the 2017 state fair with the same fervor. Together — both their names appear on the entries now because they divide the work, they say — they submitted more than 50 recipes for judging and walked away with 20 first place ribbons, including one for best in show.
Their baking takes weeks of planning and preparation, the couple said. First, they have to decide which recipes to enter, some of which they’ve never tasted or tried before.
Then, they’re home transforms into a sweet shop, with tables and racks of goodies placed all around their living room.
There are bits of the process — flipping a pie crust, for example, or stirring for too long – that Collins knows she can’t do anymore because of her handicap.
But through it all, she’s learned a disability doesn’t have to slow you down, she said. She’s chosen to live every day with a smile, to do what she loves even when it’s difficult and to ask for help when needed.
She said she hopes to inspire others to live the same way.
In the kitchen, it’s often Darl Collins who steps in to be his wife’s hands when she needs the extra assistance. It’s all worth it, he said, to keep their two-man team as happy as ever.