Red Hat Freedom

BURLESON, TX — On Wednesdays, you find them. Numerous ladies surround a table at the Senior Citizens Center, a game in the middle. They talk, giggle and sometimes burst into laughter. One woman, a regular at the center, peeks around the corner. “Y’all are laughing so much in here, I just had to come see what you’re doing,” she said. Pat Benton doesn’t mind the intrusion. Encircled by friends, she welcomes the newcomer. The group started with a few friends about 25 years ago — primarily Pat, Mary, Elaine and Betty. All of them worked as lunchroom managers, and began getting together on a weekly basis to enjoy each other’s company. After they retired, the women started meeting at the Senior Citizen Center, and the group gradually grew. They became part of the Red Hat Society.

bur713-wEventually, they numbered 42 members. Too large to meet anywhere as part of the Society, they disbanded as an official group. Nevertheless, many of the ladies continue meeting on a regular basis. Pat always tries to share helpful hints, something inspirational or a useful tidbit when they meet. They eat and then play games. The group officially meets once a week, usually on Wednesdays. They arrive at the center around 1:00 p.m. Since Pat also serves as treasurer for the local AARP group, they switch one meeting each month to Tuesday. They designate that day for playing Bunko. Many of the women show up for the AARP meeting, stay for lunch and then launch one of their favorite games. The core group of original friends shows up for almost everything, but others come and go, depending on what Pat has planned for the day. They make up a diverse group — some are widows and others, like Pat, simply have supportive husbands. “Anyone is welcomed to come join us,” Pat said. “Whatever we do, we have fun.”

And these friends do plenty. Every time they go out in their red hats, someone stops and talks with them. Often, teenage girls are the biggest fans, gushing over how cute they all look, or sharing about someone they know who is also a Red Hatter. Pat recalled one event at the Purple Turnip in Cleburne. That particular day, they had a large group of women, enough to fill four tables. A group of construction workers came into the restaurant and sat near them. A conversation ensued. Before long, all of the men went out to their vehicles and came back in wearing their hard hats. Many of the women no longer drive beyond the borders of Burleson, but Pat doesn’t mind volunteering as chauffer. If they go to a nearby town for the day or take overnight trips, they all meet at the center, and she drives wherever they want to go. Some of her favorite trips include Fredericksburg and Salado. Seven of the women traveled to Salado for a three-day trip, where they stayed at Rose Manor.

They had a wonderful cabin, but the owners allowed them to use the dining room to play games in the evenings. They shopped by day and laughed their way through the evenings over Keno, Rummikub and other games. Of course, a group of women traveling can quickly turn into an unexpected adventure. During an overnight trip to Granbury, the group decided to go out for dinner. Driving along the road, the side doors of her van suddenly flew open. Every woman in the van hollered. They managed to get them closed. Even though she had no clue how the doors opened on their own, Pat thought nothing more about it. The next day, they all climbed into the van and went over to a little shop. When they finished shopping, the van wouldn’t start — a completely dead battery. One woman used her cell phone to call the police, who came and helped them get the car started. Pat promptly headed to replace the battery. Someone asked, “Why aren’t you calling your husband?” “He’s busy in Burleson,” Pat responded. “Besides, I can do this myself — buy a battery and have someone put it in.” Her independent spirit kept their trip from becoming an exercise in sitting around waiting for rescue. Scary at the time, they can look back at the memory and laugh while telling the story.

They laugh a lot. Of course, they share moments of sadness, too. Sometimes a friend passes away, and they comfort each other through the grief. When Pat’s husband returned from a trip to New York, she took him to the emergency room thinking he had a bad case of bronchitis. He ended up needing a triple bypass the next day, and her friends encouraged her through a tough situation. The precious friendships carry them through the hard times and refuse anyone the ability to crawl into a shell of depression. “I’d get depressed if I had to stay home for any length of time,” Pat admitted, “but then someone always calls me and asks if we can do such and such.” Pat doesn’t have much time to sit for long. Besides leading this group of women and planning for their events, she has the position with AARP. She also serves on the board of Johnson County Child Welfare.

In addition, she is the hospitality chairman for BARSEA (Burleson Area Retired School Employees Association). She recruited her closest friends to help with the position. At home, Pat makes lap blankets and quilts, as well as other crafts. She accompanies one of her grandsons to Antique Alley — the biannual garage sale event along Highway 4, between Maypearl and Cleburne. In addition, Pat and her husband of 55 years travel, taking cruises, visiting other states and spending time with family. An extremely busy woman, Pat keeps track of events by creating calendars, which she shares with her group of friends. Her husband helps by asking whether she has something she’s supposed to do. “He is a good man,” she said. Junior high school sweethearts, they married just after finishing 11th grade, when she was 16. They talked and worked through problems to preserve their marriage. “He talks. I listen,” she said. In reality, they remain committed and do what they need to do. He supports Pat in her activities, but draws the line at joining her for the one thing on her bucket list she really wants to achieve — going up in a hot air balloon. “I’m gonna do it this year,” she claimed. Something about donning their shirts with the red hat stuff on the front and topping it off with a hat transforms these women. “You’d be surprised what goes on,” Pat said. “We’re free.” In that freedom, they embrace life with laughter and their hats in place.

Written by Lisa Bell.