You don’t have to fix your hair or worry about the rain if you wear a hat, explained Susan Peterson, Oyster Bay’s unofficial “hat lady,” sharing the benefits of keeping one’s head covered. Opening her downstairs closet and revealing a multitude of brightly colored yellow, pink, red and orange hats, Peterson said they were just some of her 150 hats. Mostly contemporary, they are neatly housed on shelves in the closet. Upstairs, other hats are tastefully arrayed on the wall, serving to accent her Victorian home.
Peterson, 71, makes a fashion statement every time she leaves her house, always wearing one of her hats. “It is my signature piece,” she said. “But the only problem is that people are so used to me wearing one that they chastise me when I don’t have one on, which is rare.”
Serving as president of the Life Enrichment Center of Oyster Bay and a eucharistic minister at Christ Episcopal Church, Peterson, who is also a professor of philosophy at Nassau Community College, has many occasions to wear her hats. She said she prefers to wear ones with upturned brims to see better, and so people can see her too.
“The Queen Mother realized the value of that,” Peterson said, smiling. “She said, ‘My people need to see me,’ so she wouldn’t wear any other type of hat.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Peterson moved to Long Island in 1976, and lived in Bayville, Westbury and Syosset. She moved to an apartment in East Norwich in 1980 and lived there for 22 years before moving to her house in Oyster Bay. Dating back to the 1800s, it also serves as an office for her business, A-1 Resumes, Inc.
Her love affair with hats has been a long one, beginning in the 1980s when she frequented Belmont Park. Most people didn’t wear hats while watching the races, but then Peterson went into the restaurant. “I was hatless, and looked around at the ladies, who were all wearing hats, and thought I should get one too,” she recalled.
Around that time, she joined Christ Church in Oyster Bay. It was another perfect place to wear a hat, she said.
Connie Cincotta, of Oyster Bay Cove, who also attends Christ Church, shares Peterson’s passion for hats. “Years ago, the rector made a point of introducing us, probably seeing us as two crazy hat ladies,” said Cincotta, who had a dressing room built in her home just for her many hats. “We take delight in each other’s hats.”
Peterson can still remember where she bought her first hat — at Saratoga Race Course — though she can’t remember when. She would go to the track for two weeks each summer. She even shared a house there for seven years in the 1990s with Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, the winner of the 1973 Triple Crown.
“Eighty percent of the people wear hats at Saratoga,” Peterson said. “And the hats are all different types, as are the people wearing them. There are even farmer’s wives wearing straw hats picnicking on the grass. It’s a charming scene.”
During that time, she collected only a few hats, she said, because they were relatively pricey, anywhere from $200 to $300. Then, five years ago, she learned where designer hats were sold at reasonable prices. It was Easter Sunday, and a women had a hat on that Peterson admired. When she asked where it was purchased the woman told her Burlington Coat Factory, where the hat department is popular among local ladies from the Caribbean.
Never having gone there Peterson thought she’d give it a try. One of the first hats she found was one created by the Italian designer Giovannio. “I had several of those hats, and I paid between $150 and $300,” Peterson said. “At Burlington the hat was $39.99.”
She bought that hat. and many more over the years, from Burlington.
During a trip to Saratoga, she decided to wear a Giovannio straw hat she had bought at Burlington to Hatsational, where she had paid hundreds of dollars for hats in the past.
“Right in front of me was the same hat that I was wearing priced, at $175,” Peterson recounted. “The woman working there asked me if I had bought my hat at her store. I told her I had payed $29.99 for it at Burlington. She didn’t talk to me after that.”
Hats also played a part in Peterson’s romantic life. When she met her future husband, Dr. Robert Neuhaus, an Oyster Bay psychologist, in 2002, he wore a Panama hat that she admired. They married in 2004, and were known around the hamlet as the “hat couple.”
They would go hat shopping together, and, Peterson said, Neuhaus would buy her some hats and she’d buy some for him. Neuhaus died in 2010.
Peterson has always encouraged others to wear hats, especially at church. On Easter she has been a bit successful, she said, with more than 12 women wearing hats.
She also rents out her hats for $20 to $50 to benefit the Life Enrichment Center, which she’s been doing for 15 years. And when nothing matches a particular hat anymore — Peterson always buys a hat first, then the outfit to match it — she donates the hat to Silver Threads, the center’s thrift store.
She also lends her hats to her close friend Pat Azmitia, of Oyster Bay Cove. “All I have to do is describe my outfit and Sue gives me choices on a hat,” Azmitia said. “She stores them all, and this way I don’t have to buy a hat. My favorite is the black and coppery crepe hat.”
Cincotta said she wears hats as often as she can. They are the perfect complement to an outfit, she said, and wearing one makes one look sleek and feel elegant. Peterson, Cincotta said, always knows how to match her hat with her outfit. And she always looks fabulous.