Plains Folk

The Hat


A couple of days ago the editor of the student newspaper and a photographer here at North Dakota State University dropped by, said they were doing a story about me. When it came to the photo shoot, they said, get your hat – the broad-brimmed, tan, felt Akubra I wear most of the year. Evidently they regard it as some kind of signature.

Which I guess it is, since I  most always wear either the Akubra or a black Stetson to work. What’s up with that? Well, I do spend a lot of time in Australia or New Zealand, and folks in Australasia are really melanoma-conscious. That southern sun just stings. In Australia school kids aren’t allowed out for recess without a broad-brimmed hat. Remembering those deep sunburns I got on the tractor as a kid in western Kansas, I figure I ought to take precautions.

For me as a historian of grassy places, though, there is more meaning to the hat. In the back of the main lecture hall at the Australian National University, Canberra, is a photo portrait of the man for whom the hall is named, the great historian Manning Clark. Wearing his battered old Akubra.

I had one that looked just like that until a couple of years ago, when our Labrador retriever, who has a remarkable vertical jump, took it off the top of the hat-rack one night and chewed it into one-inch pieces. I still wonder what possessed him, and how many years he thought about doing that before he did it, presuming Labrador retrievers think. Now I’m about two years into breaking in a new hat properly.

I remember years ago when I had a cushy appointment as a research scholar at the Turnbull Library in New Zealand, one day the head librarian walked in to meet me and said, “The last chap in here with a hat like that was Manning Clark.” I said, thank you.

Here’s another picture of a professorial hat I like. The Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma hold a photograph of a youthful Edward Everett Dale, OU’s cowboy professor. There is Dale in a canvas shirt, the tail of his tie tucked into the front buttons, and of course, a tan Stetson atop his head. The wonderful thing is the photo was taken in a studio with a backdrop of painted palm trees.

Dale, though, was the kind of professor that I imagine, on parents’ day, college kids would point out and say, “Looky there’s Professor Dale.” He taught Western American history, having studied at Harvard with Frederick Jackson Turner, but he never forgot his roots on the Oklahoma range, where he had cowboyed, among other jobs, and been a deputy sheriff. Dale was a legendary storyteller. I think it was pretty easy to get him off the subject.

In 1967 OU opened a new social science building, and they christened it Edward Everett Dale Hall. It’s a plain, boxy high-rise, but anyway, they named a building after time.

I’ve learned things from these two guys with hats, Clark and Dale. Clark taught me that you have to treat all the people in the historical past with pity, if not love. I think he meant what today people would call empathy. Dale taught me, remember where you came from. You are still pretty much the same as these kids from Watford City or Peabody or Benkelman who turn up in your classes there at the university.

Maybe, I hope, the hat says that to them.

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