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.
Thats 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. Were Red Hatters. Have you never heard of them? And he said, No, I havent. I didnt know what you were.
Like she said; theyre Red Hatters.
Officially, society is the preferred terminology, not cult. And although Malones 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 dont become invisible. And together, as a collective unit, when we are united, we are invincible. So when you have all these women who arent 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 havent 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 dont do much singing, says Lilly Nutter, a spry 101-year-old who lives at the Heritage Pointe Nursing Home in Warren. Lets 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 its blossomed from there.
It was very well received, and it is a ball, Nutter says. Its 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 youre free to be just as silly as you want. And it doesnt cost anything – just the meal if youre going someplace.
But most of the time, Nutters 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 havent done anything since Christmas, Nutter says. The snow hasnt permitted it. Our last thing was our annual Christmas tea, and that was fabulous.
Nutters 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.
Isnt that impressive? she says. The most impressive of all is Ive 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. Ive 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.
Ive really had a busy life for my 101 years. Im still part of the Red Hatters and still go with them.
Theyve been to Wabashs Honeywell Center and Fort Wayne and Peru and Hartford City.
At 72, Becky Parker is one of the younger hatters in the county.
Well get out and do different things, Parker says. We judge the Halloween costumes at the (Warren) Scarecrow Festival. Thats 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.
Were getting to the place where were 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 well go to a movie. At our age, after retiring, we needed something so we could laugh and be ourselves.