Clad in stark white bib overalls, Jack Masters carefully takes the old hat out of its aged Walgreens plastic sack and sets it carefully on the table top in front of him.
“It all started out as a joke, really,” he said, twiddling with one of two Vincennes city pins adorning the top of the red and white State Farm Insurance ball cap. “Best I can guess, I think it was 1979 when I got my first signature.”
Masters moved to Vincennes in 1969 after serving in the U.S. Army. He enrolled in Vincennes University, received a degree in education, but amid an overabundance of teachers that year, he took a job as a State Farm Insurance agent, a position he held for more than 40 years.
But 10 years after the Gibson County native decided to officially call Vincennes home, he found himself at the old Executive Inn at a business expo. At the time, he said, Mayor Allen Clark was being challenged by city firefighter Bill Rose.
“Bill Rose came wandering through and, as a joke, I asked if he would autograph my hat,” he said, pointing to the late Rose's signature. “They were in the thick of their campaign, and I think there were some hard feelings, so when I saw Allen Clark later, I teased him, said 'Hey, Bill signed it. Why don't you, too?'”
Oddly enough, both men signed their names with the prefix “mayor,” Masters pointed out with a grin.
Rose would go on to beat Clark that year, Masters said, and he took office in 1980.
Masters placed the hat with both the men's signatures inside a white Walgreens sack and put it on a shelf in his home. And there it sat, he said, for the next four years.
“I actually forgot about it,” he said. “But then I thought, 'I ought to get more.'”
Belle Kasting was elected as mayor in 1992, and even though she served four years, Masters said he was never able to track her down.
It wasn't until she served on then Mayor Al Baldwin's Board of Works years later that he cornered her after a meeting and asked for her autograph.
By then, he'd already gotten Baldwin's, Terry Mooney's and Howard Hatcher's signatures as well.
The latter, he said, is probably his favorite.
“Hatch,” Masters said with a chuckle, using a nickname often given to those who know the former mayor well. “He was so tickled. He thought I was kidding when I came by to get his autograph that day.
“I don't think anybody had ever asked him that,” he said.
Hatcher, too, remembers the moment fondly.
“I'd known Jack forever,” Hatcher said. “And I remember being surprised. I just never felt like I was any better or bigger than anybody else.
“It was almost overwhelming,” he said, “because I was no different than the guy I'd always been, even though a lot of people wanted to treat me that way.”
Mayor Joe Yochum said he had a similar response when Masters approached him eight years ago.
“I guess I thought it was nice,” he said with a chuckle. “I thought it was neat that he'd gotten that hat signed all through the years, from past mayors.”
Masters said all of the mayors — now 40 years' worth — were cordial, if not a bit surprised, when he approached them to sign an old State Farm ball cap.
Some, he said, simply signed their names while others, like Hatcher and Baldwin, signed with the more affectionate tag, “to my friend, Jack.”
Masters has never actually worn the hat, he said, although he's also never found a more appropriate home for it — that is, until now.
At a recent event, he was twisting balloons as a Shriner's clown — he's perhaps best known for marrying his beloved Sheila Masters in full clown costume during the 2010 Red Skelton Festival — when he mentioned it, in casual conversation, to long-time city council member Shirley Rose.
She suggested that he donate it to the city where it could be placed on permanent display.
“I just thought of all the mayors who have signed that hat,” she said. “Some Republican, some Democrat. A couple of them are now gone (deceased).
“It's the history of our city, really. And I just think it's interesting that he was able to get their signatures on it. So it thought it would be nice if we could put it at City Hall.”
Yochum agreed, adding that they'll graciously find a permanent home for the ball cap at City Hall.
“Sure we will,” the mayor said with gusto. “We'll put it right there with all of our other Vincennes stuff.”
And that's just fine with Masters.
Future mayors can sign it right there at City Hall when they take office. They can keep going, he said, until they run out of room.
“I would have just left it on the shelf probably,” he said with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “But I understand why they think it's interesting.
“There's probably no one else who has 40 years' worth of autographs from Vincennes mayors.”