- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

MOLINE, Ill. (AP) - Vern Staelens has worn many hats in his life. After all, he has 1,738 to choose from.

Mr. Staelens, 89, has been gathering baseball caps for several decades, displaying the entire collection in his home in Moline.

His impressive collection began when he was a welder and crew chief with Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric and contractors would bring him caps. Through his love of golf, he added to the collection by buying a hat from the gift shop of every course he played.

“Then I would have friends go on vacation. I’d ask them to get me a hat from wherever they went,” he said. “I’ve got them from the Philippines, Belgium, Germany, Alaska — all over.”

Also visible are caps from London, Paris, Athens, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, Holland, Greece, Mexico, Canada, Japan and Venezuela.

While some travelers collect refrigerator magnets or postcards on their travels, Mr. Staelens brings home — more caps. He said he has purchased hats from gas stations on trips to and from Florida during 21 years of wintering in the state.

Anne Staelens, 87, reminds her husband about his caps from the Big 10 universities.

“The hardest hat for me to get was from Northwestern!” Mr. Staelens said. “No stores around here would have a Northwestern hat.”

All of the caps are carefully hung on nails from rafters in the Staelens’ garage and from wooden beams inside a four-season addition they call the Florida room. Neatly arranged rows of colorful baseball caps cover the ceilings without an inch to spare, grouped together according to theme.

Golf hats take up rows. There also are college hats, sports teams hats, John Deere caps, hats from different countries and states and hats with funny sayings.

“He’s a Cubs fan. A big Cubs fan!” Mrs. Staelens said. Mr. Staelens laughs and nods his head in agreement.

“I’ve been a Cubs fan since I was 6 or 7 years old,” Mr. Staelens said. “I used to get in a lot of arguments with a lot of kids.” More laughter follows.

Mr. Staelens said he removes the tags from the caps and wears them from time to time.

“These rows are all golf hats,” he said, gesturing above his head in the Florida room. “I’ve got a whole row just for the (Minnesota) Vikings. There are at least 20 years of Vikings caps.”

When word of his hobby spread through the East End Club in Moline where he was a member, friends began bringing him boxes filled with caps.

“That’s when I had to start hanging them up,” he said. “I had so many hats. I started in the garage and I had to work myself out here.”

The Florida room at the Staelens’ home is just as it sounds — sunny, bright and spacious. A white table set with yellow placemats is surrounded by yellow chairs. Yellow blinds cover some of the windows, while sunlight pours in from the others. A bar at the end of the room is anchored with straw hats hanging behind it.

Mr. Staelens said each new cap that enters the home is carefully recorded by hand in a notebook. That notebook is how he knows the exact extent of his collection.

While he hasn’t singled out any particular hat as his favorite, Mr. Staelens said he is fond of a cap depicting a golfer with a clock that actually works.

“I wore that golfing one time,” he said. “Someone asked what time was it and I said, ‘Look at my hat!’”

Golfing is Mr. Staelens‘ other passion, and he recalls playing a round with pro golfer Mark Brooks. Both Mr. and Mrs. Staelens have been avid golfers for years, each with holes-in-one to their names — four for Mr. Staelens, all locally, and one in Florida for Mrs. Staelens.

“I was legally blind when I did that in Panama City Beach,” she said. Fifteen years ago, macular degeneration began to take her sight.

“We went to a lot of places for golf tournaments,” Mr. Staelens said. “We’d go to Alabama every year.”

Mrs. Staelens loves telling the story of when actors June Haver and her husband, Fred MacMurray, came to town for a local golf event. Ms. Haver attended school with Mr. Staelens.

“June Stovenour was her name,” Mrs. Staelens said. “She recognized Vern right away and went up to him and said, ‘Hi, Vern, how are you?’”

The Staelens, who will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary Aug. 31, finishing each other’s sentences and often break out in laughter. It is the second marriage for both.

Mr. Staelens has two daughters; Cindi Tsabowkos, who lives in California, and Kim Halsey, who lives in Florida. The Staelens have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Mr. Staelens graduated from Rock Island High School in 1946 where he was an all-state football and basketball star. After graduation, he played for the Quad City Mohawks minor league football team. He also served nearly two years in the Army as a military policeman stationed in Yokohama, Japan.

After returning to the Midwest, he spent a few years working for Farmall before being hired by Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric. He retired from the electric company in 1990 after 36 years of service.

Mrs. Staelens graduated from St. Joseph’s High School in 1947 and spent several years as a beautician and waiting tables. She retired from the Rock Island Arsenal in 1988 after 20 years in the procurement office and then in the shop as a polisher.

Mrs. Staelens said she has known Mr. Staelens since she was 16 years old.

“I couldn’t stand him,” she adds.

“She just couldn’t help herself,” Mr. Staelens laughs, looking over at his wife.

“My girlfriend was nuts about him,” his wife said. “I went with her to look for him. But I couldn’t stand him, and he couldn’t stand me!”

Once more, the couple burst into laughter.

“I was divorced,” M. My friend said, ‘Annie, why don’t we go to the bowling alley so we can see Vern?’ That’s when we started going together. He drove me home, and that was it. We went together for four years before we got married.”

People continue to give her husband hats, Mrs. Staelens said.

“And I say, ‘Forget it!’” she said. “He’s got so many of them.”

Mr. Staelens acknowledged his hat habit will continue.

“If I go to a store and see a hat I think I don’t have, I’ll probably buy it,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed collecting them.”

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Source: The (Moline) Dispatch, http://bit.ly/2p3zJRM

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Information from: The Dispatch - The Rock Island Argus, http://www.qconline.com

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