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When Archie Burkel was a child, she discovered a hat in her friend’s Chicago attic. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I kept finding excuses to wear it.” Playing pretend grew into a hat-collecting hobby (Burkel won’t confess how many she owns today, simply saying, “not enough”). But it wasn’t until she and her husband, John, moved to Charleston 14 years ago that others began to take notice of the fashionista’s passion for headpieces.
“People would just come up to me on the street and tell me how much they loved my hats,” she says. “It was the best communication device. It gave them something to, well, hang their hat on.” So much so that as she began to meet more hat fans, her husband encouraged her to take down their e-mail addresses. “I decided to invite these ladies to high tea,” she recalls. The turnout was so great, she followed it up with a bonafide luncheon at Alhambra Hall on Monday, September 10, 2001. “We had the best time,” Burkel says. “But then the next day, September 11, the world changed forever.”
Rather than develop another club of “ladies who lunch,” Burkel and her gals decided to change with it. So began The Hat Ladies of Charleston, a volunteer brigade uniformed in all manner of plumed, cockaded, and beribboned chapeaux. Today, 200 members ages 14 to 91 lend a hand at roughly 80 events, or “hatpenings,” as Burkel likes to call them, a year. “We docent at the Preservation Society Fall Tour of Homes and Gardens, decorate hats with patients at MUSC, walk Race for the Cure, you name it,” she notes.
The Hat Ladies don’t organize their own events, rather they step in to help nonprofits as needed. They are “fun”raisers, not “fund” raisers. “Since the Hat Ladies do not collect money, I can’t give a sum generated by Archie’s efforts,” says fellow Hat Lady Jacqueline Lear. “But, given the financial success of the events they help, The Hat Ladies’ contribution is incalculable.” Based on Burkel’s assessment, the ladies have spent 10,848 hours during the past 11 years supporting fundraising efforts of 34 nonprofit organizations dedicated to cultural, educational, social, and medical causes.
“I have a saying,” notes Burkel, “If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good you do good.” For the original Hat Lady and her legion of do-gooders, community service intersects at the corner of fashion and compassion.
“A” for Effort: Each year, The Hat Ladies grant one Garret Academy of Technology student with a $500 (no-strings attached) scholarship recognizing their community service work.
On Parade: Since 2001, The Hat Ladies have brightened Easter with their signature Promenade down Meeting Street.
Join Up: To join The Hat Ladies, all that’s asked is a love of hats, a commitment to volunteerism, and $25 in annual dues.
At the Ready: In November alone, The Hat Ladies will docent at Arts on the Beach, sponsor a Veterans Day event at Sandpiper Assisted Living, sponsor the Hat Contest at the Charleston Cup, decorate hats with patients twice at MUSC, and, of course, host their own “Hatpy Hour” and “Hatpy Birthday” celebrations at their monthly gatherings.