Jeanne Hubley sports a bright feather boa as she visits with friends during a Red Hat showing at the Sterling Senior Center's tea party last month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
A new breed of wildlife has been discovered around the Kenai Peninsula. They travel in flocks. Their heads are red and their breasts are purple. They hoot and holler and giggle a lot. They've been spotted at parades, concerts and ballgames. They're not red polls or red-headed woodpeckers; they're not birds at all. They're known as "red hatters," and they're popping up everywhere.
They were at the Alaska State Troopers' fund-raiser concert with Paul Revere and the Raiders on Oct. 22. They attended the Moose Lodge Halloween party. The next sighting just might be at the Old Town Playhouse this afternoon for the matinee performance of "The Uninvited."
Actually, they are ladies "of a certain age" who don red hats and purple clothing and attend all sorts of social events with one goal in mind: to have fun. They are members of the "Kenai River Reds (some Pinks) and we ain't Salmon" chapter of the Red Hat Society.
Chapter organizer and Queen Mother Marlene Duffy explains the social group's purpose:
"Basically it's a disorganized organization for fun and friendship after 50. We try as a chapter to plan monthly activities for our ladies to participate in, if they so choose. The society has no rules, regulations, bylaws, membership fees, monthly meetings, etc.," she said.
Chapter organizer and Queen Mother Marlene Duffy uses e-mail to keep members informed of the group's gatherings.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"The only guidelines provided by our national 'Hatquarters' is that chapter members 50 and older attending a function as a group, wear a red hat and purple outfit (or 'ladies-in-waiting,' not quite 50, wear pink hats and lavender outfits)."
In an official letter to the media from the national Hatquarters, founder and Exalted Queen Mother Sue Ellen Cooper said, "The Red Hat Society is the new women's movement changing the perception of aging women in the United States and around the world. This growing organization of women is uniting under the umbrella of a Red Hat to have fun and bond in sisterhood as they travel through the aging process together.
The Red Hat Society has an estimated 750,000 members and more than 30,000 chapters across the United States and in more than 22 foreign countries. Chapters follow no rules, believing that having fun and enjoying each other's company is what matters as members age.
"The Red Hat Society's motto is 'Red Hatters Matter,' and you will surely agree if you are able to spend just a few minutes with a Red Hatter," Cooper said.
It all began when Cooper gave her close friend a copy of the 1961 poem "Warning," by British poet Jenny Joseph, and a bright red vintage fedora to celebrate her 55th birthday in November 1997.
Local members of the Red Hat Society surround a table of appetizers during a tea party at the Sterling Senior Center last month. The rapidly growing club attends social functions as a group, where members are easy to spot with their red hats and purple outfits.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The poem expresses a sentiment that has reached the hearts of women "of a certain age," that aging can be an opportunity to return to the freedom and frivolity of youth that has been foregone while meeting the responsibilities of raising a family.
The Red Hat Society began when Cooper and five friends, inspired by the poem, clad themselves in purple clothing and red hats and met for tea in April 1998. They were raucous and noisy and their outfits stood out in the Fullerton, Calif., community. Other women noticed the fun the red-hatted ladies were having and wanted to join in. Word spread of the festivities via magazines, newspapers and the Internet. Soon chapters were springing up all over the country.
Last year, Duffy organized the Kenai River Reds chapter to put some fun back in her life after she lost her husband. It meant never having to be lonely again. By virtue of being the chapter organizer, Duffy holds the title of Queen Mother.
"Most of our members are widowed or divorced. It's difficult to get out if you have to go by yourself, but if you have someone to go with, you can really have fun. That's what the group is all about, having fun after 50," Duffy said.
Marita Gates sports a customized baseball cap.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"The members choose the events. Ladies let me know about things going on in the community. I pass the word to the members via e-mail or phone. We try to get to two or three events a month."
Members have gone to plays, concerts, fund-raisers, dance recitals, ballgames and to see Hobo Jim's show with the can-can girls.
"We even went to see the Chippendales. I think that was the first and last time we'll do that," Duffy said. "I don't know who was more embarrassed, the ladies or the dancers who saw all those white-haired ladies in red hats sitting in the front row.
Members thought about going to the polls together in their red hats, but they decided it might be considered too political.
One member who worked in the borough assessor's office for years invited other members to join her on her 65th birthday when she went back to the assessor's office to file her senior citizens property tax waiver.
"We all showed up in our red hats, and it was quite a celebration," Duffy said.
Patsy Clifford, chapter vice queen, said she joined the society for fun and for the joy of having other sisters.
"It's great getting together and letting your hair down," she said.
One of Clifford's favorite outings was when the ladies attended an Oiler's game and the team presented one of them with an official red Oilers baseball cap. She also enjoyed the Hats and Gloves Tea at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center.
"We had tea on fine China served by the gentlemen. They made me honorary queen that day."
Dianna Chapman has been a member for about five months. She and two of her friends joined about the same time.
"All three of us lost our husbands within months of each other. We decided that life has to go on. Having lots of ladies to have fun with brings liveliness back to life.
"It shocks everybody that I am able to overcome serious health problems to be with friends. But it's so much fun, it really makes me feel better."
Chapman's favorite event so far was riding on the chapter's float in the Soldotna Progress Days Parade.
"I even got my picture in the paper riding on the back of the float," she said.
Gloria Huckabay likes the fact that there are no meetings to attend, no obligations and no duties.
"Everybody is the same. There are no officers. When an event is planned, you are invited to attend, but there's no obligation. I'm older and I'm tired of organizations where you 'have' to go to meetings.
"I travel a lot, and there are chapters everywhere. You can just join in any planned event and the ladies make you feel as welcome as can be. I was in Seaside, Ore., last summer and got to ride a trolley car with the ladies in their Fourth of July Parade. It was great fun."
Huckabay, who has lived on the Kenai for years, said the Red Hat Society has introduced her to a whole different circle of people she never would have met otherwise.
"One of the best things I have gained from being a member is that it has really broadened my horizon of friends," she said.
Dorothea McDonald said she worked for the Kenai Senior Citizens Center for five years, "but I was pushing 75 and decided that it was time to quit working. So I moved out toward Sterling. I was afraid I'd never get to be around my friends and have fun anymore. But with the Red Hat ladies, we have fun no matter where we go."
McDonald is planning to go to Maryland to be with family and hopes to find a chapter there.
"The thing is, we just have fun. No meetings, no fees and you get to meet new people," she said.
"It's lots of fun being with a group of women. Women can sense your mood and can help you get over the blues. You can't be blue around those girls," said Jeanne Hubley. "It's a sisterhood. Lots of us don't like to do things by ourselves and lots of guys are not interested in doing the things we want to do, like going to plays and concerts. So it's just fun for us to go to these things together."
Gloria Huckabay shows her unusual purse to Betty Truesdell and other Red Hat members during a tea party at the Sterling Senior Center. "My kids this it just suits me," she said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Hubley said she enjoyed the trip the group took to Homer. They stopped for dinner at the Happy Valley restaurant and then went on to Homer to see a play at Pier One Theater.
Since Hubley doesn't drive, her boyfriend, Jerry Garoutte, has chauffeured her to many of the events.
"It's fun to have him along," she said. "We went to the 50th wedding anniversary of one of our members a while back. Jerry's quite a photographer, so he started taking pictures at the party. The ladies were so impressed with his photos that they decided to make him an honorary member. They gave him a purple shirt and made him the official 'Hatographer.' He got himself a red cowboy hat, and now he fits right in."
Garoutte said the inclusion suits him just fine.
"I'd rather be there than sitting out in a boat," he said. "The best part is that there's no organization. Their single objective is to have fun. What could be better?
"I really had a good time at the Red Hat Hoot they had at the Sheraton Hotel in Anchorage. There were over 160 red hatters there from all over the state."
Garoutte contributes pictures to scrapbooks, and many were used to create a collage that the chapter took to the Red Hat Hoot.
When asked what it was like to be virtually the only man among all those women, Garrote replied, "I'm having the time of my life."
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