I have been obsessed with fedoras since I was a kid, mostly because of two men.
The first is my paternal grandfather, William Daniel Strother. We called him “Little Granddad” because Mom’s Dad was a big man and he got the nickname “Big Granddad.” Today, in their earthly absence, they are both bigger than life to me.
Little Granddad was born in 1899. He was a little too young to fight in World War I and a little too old for World War II. Born at the end of the 19th Century, he and the 20th Century – the Great American Century – grew up together. Granddad chewed Red Man tobacco, smoked King Edward cigars, and wore a gray fedora. Unless he was in the house, where it was rude and ungentlemanly to wear a hat, he was wearing his. Most days he looked a little like a slighter version of an irritable Bear Bryant, except Granddad didn’t wear that houndstooth nonsense.
Little Granddad did, however, wear a scowl, which served to express pleasure, disinterest, annoyance, humor, happiness…you name it. Some say he never smiled. I say his scowl was his smile.
He walked with a cane and lived through, as I mentioned, both world wars, the Roaring Twenties, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, the walk on the moon, the Kennedy assassination, and most of the Reagan era.
Little Granddad died in 1986.
The Great Game
Little Granddad was a baseball man. I liked baseball and played it all the way through high school, but was obsessed with football.
LG: “Baseball is a man’s game.”
Me: “Football isn’t???”
LG: “You got eleven guys ganging up to demolish the one man who has the ball. That ain’t no man’s game.”
Me: “Well, in baseball you got nine guys ganging up to get one guy out.”
LG: Scowls (which, as noted, might be a smile?)
I remember nights when he and I would listen to the fuzzy calls of Major League games over a transistor radio. It was theatre of the mind. It was the Great Game. And it was beautiful.
go to thunder
Little Granddad is not a household name. He is not even much of a name in his own household anymore. He only ever met one of my daughters and she was too young to remember him. I doubt anyone outside the families of my Dad and Aunt Shannon ever give him a thought. He was 40 when he married and just into his 60s when he was widowed. Everything he left behind was kept in an old hardshell suitcase from the 1950s and a King Edward cigar box…
Everything, that is, except for his “go to thunder” hat, which was still in the original box in which it was housed when he bought it. I am its proud owner and have been since he passed.
What is a “go to thunder” hat? It is a dress hat so nice that any man wearing it can tell whomever he wants to “go to thunder!” That phrase is, I guess, LG’s substitute for the cruder layman’s “Go to Hell.”
Gosh, I miss LG. I wish I had known then that I would someday miss him like I do. I would have lured more stories from the good old days out of him. I would have talked less and listened more. I would have shown him more of the respect he was due.
The Man in the Funny Hat
Thomas Wade Landry was born September 11, 1924, in Mission, Texas. His father Ray was an auto mechanic and volunteer fireman. His mother Ruth was a housewife. Ray’s parents moved to the border town for the warm, dry climate. Ray suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, even as a teen. The climate made enough of a difference for Ray to excel in sports at Mission High School, where he played football and baseball.
Where Ray really excelled, apparently, was in the fatherhood department. How could he and Ruth have known or dared dream that the strapping baby boy they welcomed to the world on that late Summer morning in 1924 would become one of the most legendary Texans in state history? Texans remember him with the same pride they do the likes of Sam Houston, Buddy Holly, and Walter Cronkite.
MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COWBOYS
Two men who were once my uncles but not anymore greatly impacted my football loyalties before I was in first grade. They were Cowboys fans deluxe. One of them would take the annual team photo and have me memorize the names and numbers, then he would drill me on it. Guys like #17 Don Meredith, #20 Mel Renfro, and Mr. Cowboy himself, #74 Bob Lilly weren’t just big, they were bigger than life.
The names and numbers changed with the years. Meredith retired and soon the greatness of #12 Roger Staubach would join others like #55 Lee Roy Jordan. Roger & Co. marched the team into the greatest era of Cowboys football – the 1970s. They would go to eight conference championship games, five Super Bowls, and win two World Championships in that decade…and establish themselves as America’s Team.
The one constant from year to year, team to team, and victory to victory was the stoic Texan Staubach dubbed “The Man in the Funny Hat.”
The Picture of Stability
Each of the uncles by marriage, the men who molded my football brain, would prove to be troubled individuals from whom my aunts, my mom’s sisters, found it necessary to separate. When the first one fell sometime in the mid-to-late seventies, I remember my Dad talking with him in the living room. Divorce was looming. Dad had a tone of firmness and finality in his counsel. From my room, I could not hear the words but I knew the outcome.
Whatever the family troubles, whatever the national turbulence, on any given football Sunday, I could turn on my television and there he stood, a football god, casting a long shadow over Dallas, Texas, the NFL, America, and me. His arms folded, his jaw set like flint, his keen eyes squinting under the shadow of his fedora, a master strategist analyzed the gridiron chessboard, outwitting, outmaneuvering his opponent, and outfitting his players for success. Tom Landry represented stability.
The Fedora Kid
I have been in a hurry most of my life. I couldn’t wait to get to the pastorate and thus was leading my own little congregation at age 23. I also couldn’t wait until I was old enough to wear a fedora. So, shortly after I became a pastor, I found a gray fedora. Like a siren song to a seafaring sailor, it lured me from its perch.
The fedora crowned a JC Penney manikin. It was gray felt, just like Little Granddad’s, and almost identically shaped. I had to have it, even though I could not afford it.
The Time-Traveling Hat
Right then and there I purchased my very first Tom Landry hat. I wore it with pride. Never mind I may have looked like a boy wearing his dad’s work uniform. I was far away from my roots, living in California. Every time I donned my fedora, it brought me back home; back to my childhood, back to scratchy voices on transistor radios and the sunshine and shadows of Cowboys football in the stadium with the hole in the roof; back to D&F Battery & Electric, my parents’ business, where Little Granddad, with his fedora and his cane, ruled the lobby and entertained customers and guests; back to life as it was and would never be again.
I faced the future with hope and honored the past with a hat.
Somehow, I lost that hat in the move back to Texas. That was 1991. Litte Granddad was long gone by then, having died in a rest home in ‘86. In 1989 Landry was the victim of an inglorious and unjust firing by the ignoble, brash, hotshot new owner, Jerry Jones. The glories of the past were passed.
Coming of age with the perfect fit
Thirty-six years after I bought my first fedora, I am no less obsessed. I have been in search of the perfect fedora for decades. Consequently, I own more than a dozen of them, some made of straw, others of felt, and even one of corduroy.
I am no longer a kid. I turned sixty a few days ago. My daughters and their guys celebrated this by taking me to breakfast and then to Peters Brothers, the quintessential Texas hat shop, in business since 1911. The store is still in the Peters family. The fifth generation still handcrafts hats, mostly cowboys hats and, you got it. fedoras.
I picked out a 5X beaver gray Resistol cowboy hat and commissioned the descendant of the brothers who once made Tom Landry’s hats to make me a Tom Landry hat. He did! He took that cowboy hat and cut and molded it. He crafted the hat I had been seeking my whole life – the perfect fit, the perfect, shape, the perfect fedora.
And what timing! I am just about old enough to wear it.