By John Leaf Special to Published Sep 17, 2011 at 1:05 PM

Of the hundreds of nickname stories I've been blessed to hear over the past three years, this one, involving the 1938 Wisconsin State Fair and a woman who would become known as "Fifi the Hat Lady" is still my favorite, bar none. It leaves every other nickname story in the shade, which is where Marion's mother would have always kept her all summer, if she could.

Back in the early '30s, in Milwaukee, Marion recounts, "My mom didn't want me to get the nickname 'freckles.'

This little girl had "flaming red hair," and every second in the sun made the freckles multiply like crazy.

In the past, many state fairs had "freckles" contests, believe it or not. Kind of a lost art, as it were, in this day and age of political correctness. As "luck" would have it, Marion had two older brothers who took her to the fair that year, back in 1938. When the boys heard over the Fairgrounds loudspeaker that there was a stage holding a "freckles" contest, it was a no brainer. And, as Marion would later say, "I knew if I was in it, I knew I would win it."

A rapper well ahead of her time. Needless to say, this adorable little 7 or 8 year old girl walked away with the contest. She also walked away with a level of freckled humiliation that would haunt her for years to come.

As a huge lover of irony in life, this story still tickles me pink. Her mom was insistent about making Marion wear hats, to keep her cheeky little freckled face out of the sun. As irony would have it, the little freckled face girl fell in love with hats. The rest, as they say, is history. But little did Marion know, that her intersection with life-changing fate, all due to hats, would not occur for years to come.

As Marion's life unfolded, she had the opportunity to travel the world. And wherever she went, she collected hats. From Thailand, London, Paris, you name it, she grabbed one. For most women it's shoes. For Marion, it was hats.

Fast forward to the late '90s. Marion was now about 70 years old. Plenty of kids, grandkid and memories, but she was presented with every older person's nightmare; the thought of becoming invisible, feeling like wallpaper, and that life had passed them by.

While visiting one of her favorite local "eateries", and wearing one of her many hats, as she did every day, the owner of the restaurant called out, "Hey it's Fifi, the Lady in the Hat."

That once simple sentence simply changed the rest of her life. Marion said to herself, "Yes, I am the lady in the hat. I am somebody. I'm Fifi the Hat Lady."

As she recounted to me at her humble abode, her life changed when she chose to own that nickname, embody it, and allow it to change her life. She began calling herself "Fifi the Hat Lady." Her mood improved, her energy level increased, and all of the sudden, at the age of 70, Marion was back in circulation.

Ever since then, for the past decade, "Fifi" has been going to local grade schools doing in-services and taking her hats with her, to tell the kids stories about her world travels using her vast hat collection as a medium to talk about traveling the world, and how empowering and life-changing the right nickname can be.

Do you have a great nickname story to tell? Stop by today or tomorrow, Sept. 18, and visit my booth at the Cedarburg Wine & Harvest Festival, next to Fiddlehaed's. It would be great to share another story like "Fifi's" with Milwaukee. If your story is the best, I will blog about it next week!


John Leaf Special to

John Leaf was born in western Illinois, a mile east of the Mississippi. College in Chicago. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy. Leaf was goalie on the soccer team and captain of the golf team in college. He cut class to ride the "L" to see Cubs games, hung out for hours at the Art Institute and bent the brain doing graduate school in Theology.

He spent three mind-blowing summers in coastal British Columbia, as a resort photographer. He worked and lived in Minneapolis. He did hard time at a bank on LaSalle Street in Chicago and learned about PR, working at big firm a block off Michigan Avenue, while living in Evanston.

Now Leaf is just living the dream, under the radar, in Cedarburg. He's passionate about nicknames and launched his website three years ago.

He dabbles in yoga and cycling. Fishtailing as always, and taking a whack at life, like everyone else.