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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Red Hat Club at Heritage Pointe: seated from left Helen House, Becky Parker, Lilly Nutter, Mary Miller, Crystal Lee. Standing, Karen Karchner, Fritzi Boxel, Rita Hiser, Jane Hite, Virginia Langdon, Marian Hoffman.

‘We’re Red Hatters’

Huntington groups give women way to remain active

Lilly Nutter, 101, right, talks with fellow Heritage Pointe Red Hatters Virginia Langdon, left, and Rita Hiser.

They must have been quite the summertime sight – nearly two dozen women of advanced age, all wearing red hats of some shade and sort, clustered together as they bustled through the flea market of Shipshewana.

That’s when Ann Malone, one of the many in a red hat, was approached by a curious gentleman who boldly asked, “Are you a cult?”

“I said, ‘No, not really,’ ” says Malone, a 70-year-old retired court worker. “ ‘We’re Red Hatters. Have you never heard of them?’ And he said, ‘No, I haven’t. I didn’t know what you were.’ ”

Like she said; they’re Red Hatters.

Officially, “society” is the preferred terminology, not “cult.” And although Malone’s chapter is not recognized as a Red Hat Society member, there are a passel of such organizations in Huntington County.

The educated guess is there are a dozen separate groups involving hundreds of hatters, but no one seems to know the exact number.

According to the national headquarters in Fullerton, Calif., none of the groups in Huntington or Huntington County is officially recognized.

“Truth be told, we welcome them with open arms,” national marketing director Emily Yost says. “We love the fact that they love the society. We just want to make sure that they are a part of the united group versus what we call ‘hatting’ on their own.

“This is about making sure that women don’t become invisible. And together, as a collective unit, when we are united, we are invincible. So when you have all these women who aren’t supporting the organization hear the messages so they can come along and join us.”

There are at least three groups in Huntington, two in Warren, and some others that get out and gadabout when the weather allows, which means they haven’t been seen en masse in some time.

Not all Red Hat groups – officially or unofficially – are alike. Some of the members are more physically active than others. Some are asked to attend community functions or hospitals or nursing homes, where they may sing a few songs like “You Are My Sunshine” or provide a mild choreographed dance routine. For the women of Huntington County, the opportunity to don their red hats serves as more of a social function, although the groups from Warren have been known to march in various civic parades. The extent of their choreography is to wave at husbands, friends and grandchildren.

“We don’t do much singing,” says Lilly Nutter, a spry 101-year-old who lives at the Heritage Pointe Nursing Home in Warren. “Let’s face it, honey, at this age, we croak.”

A native of California, where the Red Hat Society originated, Nutter introduced the concept to Huntington County more than a dozen years ago and it’s blossomed from there.

“It was very well received, and it is a ball,” Nutter says. “It’s such a nice thing for older people, when you no longer have all the duties of packing lunches and washing clothes and all that stuff, and you’re free to be just as silly as you want. And it doesn’t cost anything – just the meal if you’re going someplace.”

But most of the time, Nutter’s involvement with her red hat group is confined to the nursing home, which has its own in-house society. And if weather permits, there is the occasional outing.

“We haven’t done anything since Christmas,” Nutter says. “The snow hasn’t permitted it. Our last thing was our annual Christmas tea, and that was fabulous.”

Nutter’s name is well-known around the Huntington area for other endeavors.

She has helped organize other Red Hat members in sending shoeboxes full of items such as magazines, candy, spices and toiletries to military personnel overseas.

And she has been doing this for more than 10 years.

“To date, I have sent 1,305 boxes,” Nutter says with certainty. And she adds that volunteers have paid for more than $12,000 in postage.

“Isn’t that impressive?” she says. “The most impressive of all is I’ve made scrapbooks of the thank you emails and I have received over 600 thank you letters from the troops. I have thank yous from President (Barack) Obama, from the governor of Ohio, from the governor of Indiana. I’ve received a citation from the National Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, from two of our state representatives, including (the late) Phyllis Pond, dear soul.

“I’ve really had a busy life for my 101 years. I’m still part of the Red Hatters and still go with them.”

They’ve been to Wabash’s Honeywell Center and Fort Wayne and Peru and Hartford City.

At 72, Becky Parker is one of the younger hatters in the county.

“We’ll get out and do different things,” Parker says. “We judge the Halloween costumes at the (Warren) Scarecrow Festival. That’s not too exciting. And we do our parade every year – the Salamonie Summer Festival parade. But we just get out and have fun.”

Being two years younger than Parker, Malone claims 70 “is the new 40.”

“We’re getting to the place where we’re retiring,” Malone says. “We meet the second Wednesday of each month. Different girls in the group take a month, and they choose the place where we go to eat. Maybe we’ll go to a movie. At our age, after retiring, we needed something so we could laugh and be ourselves.”