Saltwater Portrait

Joan Gaffney owns - and has worn - many hats

Lewes resident has a wealth of stories worth hearing
Lewes resident Joan Gaffney has been a hat collector and wearer for years. Here she wears a pith helmet, the second one she obtained after having to surrender her first to a customs authority. She worked for the U.S. government while living in England for more than six years during the Cold War. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.
December 31, 2013

Every adult probably knows at least one octogenarian with stories about a life fully lived and still going. But it's doubtful those people have as many stories containing surprise twists like the tales Joan Gaffney tells.

Gaffney, 86, lives in a Lewes home that, at around 100, isn’t much older than she is. Years before she bought it, it had been altered several times but not necessarily in keeping with a specific period.

“It’s gone through a lot of changes, it’s been victorianized; you can tell by the bay windows,” she said sitting in what she calls the room for play and fun, Christmas and Halloween.

Born in New York City, Gaffney spent a career working for the U.S. government in several jobs.

She visited Lewes in the mid-‘80s and stayed with friends who had a summer rental house.

“I liked it so much that I decided I wanted to have a house down here, despite the fact that I hardly had the wherewithal to do so. But, you know, sometimes when you make up your mind to do things, you can do them,” she said. In 1985, she bought the only house in Lewes that was under $100,000.

“I paid $88,000. It’s a pleasant house,” she said.

She loves to paint and continues to refine her skills by taking classes locally and by traveling to Italy. In her fun room are several finished pieces and one of an Italian street scene she said she’s been working on for years.

“I’m a collector of all kinds of things including hats, which are some of my favorite things. I have pith helmets, a German officer’s cap, there’s a park service hat and a coachman’s hat,” she said, referring to the black hat an unskilled observer would call a top hat.

“A top hat goes like this, a regular top hat goes like this,” she said, sweeping her hand above the coachman’s hat to illustrate shape differences.

“I used to have an old-fashioned opera hat, which is a top hat, silk. You push it down and put it under the seat. When you got it out you tapped it, and it went 'pffft.' It was great fun,” she said.

She has about 50 hats in a collection she said she’s been working on since forever.

She also wears hats and has a few favorites. “I have a tweed cap, and in the summer I have a white cotton brim. It keeps the sun out of my eyes,” she said.

Also in her collection is a miniature country store built by a retired Army officer in El Paso, Texas. It was a housewarming gift from her niece and nephew who live in El Paso.

“He’s known all over the United States for his model doll houses. This is a country store, and it has all kinds of detail - and he made it all to scale,” she said, pointing out the tiny, individual soda bottles, boxes, cans and containers.

“Sometimes people bump it, and I have to put it back together, which is no mean task,” she said.

She lived in London during the ‘60s for six years, working in the U.S. Embassy. “It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it there,” she said.

And while there was fun, the reality of the world has a way of suddenly crashing in and dealing a devastating blow.

“It was a cold, snowy day, kind of grim. We had been out in the cold doing something, and we came in to get warm and get some drinks. The pub owner came over to me, and he said ‘Can I speak to you for a moment?’ I thought, what have I done now?

"He took me aside, and he said ‘I’m very sorry to have to inform you that your president has been shot.’

"I just looked at him; it didn’t register. He said ‘In the back there’s a telly if you’d like to go and watch,’ which I did. He brought me a brandy.”

She said news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was mind-blowing and, although she had been living in England for years and had never been homesick, suddenly she was.

“The British were just as overwhelmed; that was nice. If I had been in a country that hated Americans, it would have been a different story.”

Her then-husband was a mathematician and U.S. Embassy attaché. His job was visiting college campuses in England, France, Germany, Holland and others in Europe to recruit the best and brightest to study, work and live in the United States. Joan tagged along.

When she arrived in England, she wanted to practice fencing, a sport she had been pursuing in the United States.

“I started in Washington, and I liked it. I got to the competition in New York, mostly by luck, because I was not that good a fencer.”

She said the British have a very good and well-organized public fencing education program. Students are assigned to a salon near where they live.

Joan was excited about joining a salon, in part because they have impressive names such as Henri Le Clerc Salon.

“So, I’m assigned to a salon and guess what the name is - Salon Boston! What do you mean, Boston? I go from the United States to Europe to be in a fencing salon named Boston,” she said, laughing.

The owner was Steve Boston, and he was a very good teacher, she said. He also instructed at a few of the more prestigious salons. She said local fencers were being selected to compete for slots on Britain’s Olympic fencing team.

“A woman who was a patron of this league, the Marchioness of Reading I think was her name, called me on the phone,” Joan said, switching to a spot-on British accent.

“She said ‘Oh, Joan, so glad to get ahold of you. We’d like you to come travel with us when we go to the contest in Europe. Sort of our American mascot, you might say.’ I thought that was funny. So I went.”

She said they went to a competition at a resort in Holland facing the North Sea. There was an esplanade with flags representing the participating countries, except for one.

“We were all dressed and waiting, waiting, waiting. What’s happened? ‘Well, someone has registered a protest.’ ‘Protest? Protest about what?’ ‘Well, it seems that the British have registered a protest because they haven’t put up the American flag.’ I held up the match for more than a half-hour. I wasn’t on the British team - I was just traveling with them. The British are very proper, you know.”

Joan also has stories about playing polo on horseback, flying a small airplane without one minute of training and recently watching live on screen as doctors did her hours-long heart procedure using a scoped instrument.

To hear those stories, it’s worth getting to know Joan Gaffney.

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