Members of the Red Hat Society return to CCC to keep learning

Ione Wood, left, and Valerie Benedix, right, are members of the Clovis Community College Red Hat Society or also known as the Frivolous Floozies. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The classes the women take aren’t conventional, and neither are the women.

Nancy Bartholomew exercises in the Clovis Community College swimming pool and Ione Wood builds cabinets and tables. Valerie Benedix just got her Ph.D in nursing. The women are CCC students and members of a local chapter of the Red Hat Society.

The 15-member chapter is part of a nationwide organization that “began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor, and élan,” according to www.redhatsociety.org.

The CCC branch formed a year ago, according to its founding member Valerie Benedix. Its members are middle-aged or older, retired teachers and returning students. Instead of bowing out of the college community after retiring, many of the members are reinventing themselves as students.

“If you want your brain to stay sharp, you have to keep using it,” Benedix said. “It is harder to learn when you are older. You have to make new space for things.”

But Benedix is more keen on myth-busting.

“While myths abound (about aging), you should not conform to them,” said 59-year-old Benedix.

“Some people say that older women are cranky, that we don’t have open minds. We are very open-minded. We are still going to school and learning new things. And we actually bring good cheer,” Benedix said.

The long-time blonde, who recently let her gray roots grow unhindered, organizes a monthly CCC Red Hat lunch date. It is the only formal activity in which the group participates, according to its members. And attendance isn’t even mandatory, said Benedix.

There is, however, a loose dress code — members must wear purple and red hats. The chapter-wide tradition stems from a poem: “When I am an old woman,” it begins, “I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”

“It’s our way of breaking loose of the rules, saying ‘look out world, we may be over 50, but we are still full of spunk and life and ready to have a good time,’” said member Nancy Bartholomew, a retired CCC nursing teacher.

The CCC Red Hat’s call themselves the Frivolous Floozies and each member adopts a funny name (one CCC member calls herself the Duchess of Dirt) — but underneath lies a freedom that was denied to women of earlier generations, according to Bartholomew.

“You don’t find women who think they are too old to do anything anymore. If I wanted to take up riding a Harley-Davidson, I could. My mother didn’t have that freedom.”

“There were more rules about the role women were supposed to play. My generation were the ones that got into the work place, and had careers, and got more into the man’s world. We found out we didn’t have blocks to what we could accomplish,” Bartholomew said.