They’re legendary. They’ve been around The Villages for almost 20 years, and they’re easily recognizable. They’re the members of the Red Hat Society.
Story: Leigh Neely
Jenny Joseph is a poet who wrote a warning to her family and friends that when she was an old woman, she would wear a red hat and a purple dress that didn’t match. She had no idea that little poem would create a nationwide craze that would mean those red hats and purple outfits meant you were seeing a group of women getting out, laughing, and enjoying themselves as they grow older.
Bonnie McCarroll, who lives in the Village of Bridgeport, is the Queen of Queens in The Villages—and she has the crown and scepter to prove it.
“When my husband and I were down here to finalize plans for our house, we were at a town square,” Bonnie says. “He came and got me and said there was a parade going on. It was so exciting, and after the parade, I got my picture made and they signed a book for me.”
Bonnie says she made plans then to join the Red Hat Society once she was settled in her new home. She now has 37 ladies in her group from the Bridgeport community. Across The Villages, there are 50 chapters, and at one time, there were upwards of 85.
The society has been referred to as a “playgroup for women.” There was a time when older women were characterized as grandmas who sat in rocking chairs knitting afghans or baking cookies and maybe attending the senior luncheon at the church once a month.
The women who move to The Villages are prime examples of those who have changed that stereotype. They play sports, act in plays, dance, sing, twirl batons in parades, and do anything their heart desires. With clubs and social groups numbering in the thousands, there’s always something to do.
“Our goal is to keep the sisterhood going,” Bonnie says. “And we’re always trying something different.”
On April 1, the Red Hats will celebrate their 19th anniversary in The Villages with a big party at Katie Belle’s Restaurant that includes brunch, entertainment, and eating dessert first. That’s right, these women are so bold, they enjoy dessert before their meal.
Dignitaries visiting that day will include Vice-Queen Linda Murphy, a leader in the national group who recently relocated from California to Tampa. Donna Moore, who does impersonations of famous women, will provide entertainment.
“We’re so excited she’s going to be able to join us,” Bonnie says of Linda. “She recently attended the national convention in New York City. I don’t know if any of our ladies went, but I would have gone if it hadn’t been in February (because of the cold).”
For their last big event, Pirates Day, they took over Cody’s Roadhouse at Lake Sumter Landing, and all of them came dressed as pirates with swords from the local dollar stores. Every big event also includes Red Hat vendors, the people who make their hats and design the gaudy jewelry filled with rhinestones that they love to wear.
According to Lynn Dickey, who was a Red Hatter in Fort Lauderdale before moving to The Villages, it’s lots of fun, friendship, and glitz.
“You can’t have too much glitz or fun,” Lynn says. “The Red Hat Society is a true sisterhood, and it gives you a chance to socialize and be with people you wouldn’t normally see. And we get to dress up in our red hats, our purple outfits, and lots of glitz.”
The event at Katie Belle’s also will feature vendors, including a famous hat and jewelry maker from Jacksonville that Bonnie has been trying to get to their annual party for two years. “Joyce Hunter is very well known, and her jewelry is always up to date.”
Bonnie stresses that the Red Hat Society chapters in The Villages are not like most clubs. Their main goal is not fundraising or charitable work. That is for the other clubs and organizations to which they belong. Their main goal is to have fun together, support each other, and enjoy living every day to the fullest.
They do have a fashion show once a year, and the proceeds go to St. Jude’s Research Hospital and to help The Villages Cheerleaders in their endeavors. That is their only philanthropic effort. The rest of the time, it’s women enjoying having a good time together.
“Some of the women just enjoy going to lunch or dinner together, and other groups like to do day trips. We don’t want anyone feeling obligated to join in on anything,” Bonnie says.
Because their April event is not being held at a recreation center, they’re able to have outside guests, so they have Red Hat chapters coming from Fruitland Park, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Melbourne. “Some of them will be staying over with friends, and some are staying at the Waterfront Inn, so we’ll be shopping and enjoying ourselves around The Villages, too,” she says.
The Red Hat Society of The Villages is always open to new members, and chances are, you can find a new chapter where you live. If you don’t know who to call, just look for a group of women with red hats, boas, and rhinestones at your local restaurant.