The ‘hat man’

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Anyone would think it a full life to be a man raised in a family of 11 children, who joined the Navy at 17, progressed to non-commissioned officer, obtained a competitive fleet appointment to the Naval Academy and later retired a full Commander: But not Pete Barnett.

For many years, each Saturday morning at the local Fairfax Pan Am Family Restaurant, patrons have anticipated Barnett's arrival. He'll wear one of his attention-getting hat creations set atop a wavy mat of pure white hair and a beard that would put St Nick's to shame.

When asked about his many hats, Barnett claims that just about all are donations, collected more than 20 years. It's obvious, even to the casual observer that each hat has been made with special attention to detail and with a lot of love.

Whenever there's a neighborhood fund raiser, a local Scouting event, a food drive, or any of a myriad of local volunteer efforts, Barnett may show up, tall, heavy set and imposing, wearing one of his often hilarious hats. In a world that is not always friendly, those who know Barnett also know that he'll go out of his way to get a laugh. His only motives appear to be kindness and a generous heart.

He said that most kids like the Uncle Sam and Santa Claus hats - he has several of each. But they also like his soft and fluffy varieties - like the Dr. Seuss Cat in the Hat. Adults praise the flower-pot hat and his Irish hat collection. When asked to don one of his favorites, from the more than 500 hats in his collection, Barnett puts on a top hat.

"It reminds me of the one Lincoln wore," he says.

Many of Barnett's hats have a story behind them. A horse hat was the start of the collection.

"It all began in 1987, at one of my daughter's soccer games," he said. "Following the game, the parents had a get-together. My wife, a critical care nurse, arrived carrying a scrub hat." Apparently, Barnett donned the scrub hat and became a major attraction. At the next soccer game the team presented Barnett with the horse hat.

Since then, Barnett has accumulated many more hats at other events. And there are plenty of events that demand his attention: teaching religious education at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, meeting with the Annandale Knights of Columbus, working with disadvantaged children or at a Head Start program.

At Barnett's daughter's wedding reception, Barnett brought enough hats for all the guests to where. His brother, Msgr. Steve, who officiated at the wedding, even wore a white velvet top hat.

Several of his collection have the word "Marshal" on the front and the March for Life logo from 1985 to 2010, an example of Barnett's commitment to the cause.

The collection includes: an assortment of Asian straw hats, each differing in shape and weave pattern; animal hats - lots of them: alligator, monkey, lope-eared dog, octopus, crab, chicken, skunk and even a huge elephant-head, complete with face, ears and a trunk; holiday hats - Halloween, St. Patrick's, Easter, Christmas, and all of the National holidays, and every holiday in between.

Sitting to one side is Barnett's Navy Commander's cap. It's obvious he takes a special pride in that one.

Stevans is a freelance writer from Fairfax, and author of Thinking in Private, The Present, Past and Future (Amazon).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015