Ladies' night out

The group was inspired by the poem, 'Warning: When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.'
WHO ARE THOSE LADIES IN THE red hats? That's what patrons of the Springfield Grille were wondering Tuesday evening, when 12 women dressed in purple outfits and pearls, white gloves and red hats paraded into the restaurant, claimed a large table in the back and sat down to enjoy an extended dinner together.
"Inquiring minds do want to know," said Springfield Grille assistant manager Sheila Fowkes, laughing. "People asked me if it's because of [the book] the 'Ya-Ya Sisterhood.'"
"Others want to know what the age group is," Fowkes said. "And one customer wanted to know: 'What do they believe in?'"
In answer to the many questions, the gathering was inspired by a poem. The ladies are all over 50. And they believe in having fun.
Tuesday night's dinner was the first outing -- in full regalia -- of Youngstown's new chapter of the Red Hat Society.
The society began in California in 1998, in response to the poem, "Warning," by British writer Jenny Joseph. The poem details certain unconventional things the author will be able to get away with once she's old ("When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. ... With a red hat, which doesn't go. ... But maybe I ought to practice a little now?").
How it began
A few years ago, Sue Ellen Cooper of Fullerton, Calif., began to give as gifts to her friends a framed copy of Joseph's poem along with a red hat. The friends eventually referred to themselves as the Red Hat Society and one day decided to go out to tea in their red hats.
Since then, the idea and the poem behind it have struck a chord with women far and wide; in fact, the group has mushroomed into more than 50,000 members worldwide. Twelve of the newest members are in Youngstown.
"We've always had to conform in our lives, and now we feel free to do whatever we want to as long as it's not immoral or illegal," said Jackie Stambaugh. "You're not questioned as much when you reach a certain age -- you can have a free spirit."
Stambaugh is the local group's Queen Mother, or founder. Known as the Dazzling Dames of the Red Hat Society, the 12 Youngstown-area women say that they've been through everything together. Indeed, they have seen one another through marriages, some divorces, child rearing and the general ups and downs of life. Some have been friends since youth, and some are now grandmothers.
"We've done it all," said member Judy Kata, listing some of the community boards she and her friends have dutifully served on over the years -- Junior League, various Parent-Teacher Associations, Symphony Guild, Stambaugh Pillars and so forth.
Self-assured members
While many of the ladies are still active representatives of the community, they're also doing something for themselves now. "We are greeting middle age with humor, dignity and spirited self-assurance!" said Kata.
The society's purpose is counter to the idea of rules, but Youngstown's group sticks to a dress code: red hat, purple outfit, white gloves and pearls.
Unlike the other groups these women have belonged to, this one requires no dues and no work. The group intends only to have a good time with friends and to share laughter and food. And of course, it's a great opportunity to catch up on the latest in their lives. One member brought photos from her daughter's recent wedding. Others swapped stories about shopping for the perfect red hat.
So what about all those stares at the restaurant?
"Everybody loves us," said Stambaugh, with a sly smile. "I think they would like to do it. They look at us with envy!"
Besides Stambaugh and Kata, other members of the Youngstown group are Sally Ocker, Toni Douglass, Dottie Melody, Val Zurawick, Carol Yaskulka, Mary Alice Boyd, Irene Emrich, Carolyn Kukura, Joan McCullough and Beverly Muresan.

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