J.J. Leen thinks he might be one of a few hat makers left in the Dayton area.
Although Leen is handicapped and living at Heartand of Kettering, Lean continues to design and create hats that sell at the Town & Country Fine Arts Center in Kettering and Brim hat shop in Dayton’s Oregon District.
A 1962 graduate of Chaminade High School, Leen, a devout Roman Catholic, thought he wanted to be a priest and went on to seminary. “I discovered that was not my calling.” Leen then studied fashion illustration at The Dayton Art Institute. “I won the DuPont Student Design award for a sports coat and shirt I made.” Leen went on to design display windows locally for Sears and Elder-Beerman and then took his talent to Finklestein’s in Rhode Island.
“I worked for Rubenstein’s in west Dayton and they sent me to Harlem to photograph store windows so we could make our windows more updated,” recalls Leen. “That was a wonderful store. I really enjoyed working there.” He also made hats and ran a hat shop, The Hat Tree, on Fifth Street in the Oregon District.
An accident in which Leen broke his neck combined with a stroke left Leen in a wheelchair and unable to use his left hand. “I’m left handed, but with physical therapy here at Heartland of Kettering they taught me to use my right, and I now I can make my hats with my right hand.”
Leen, who has been a resident at Heartland of Kettering nine years, makes his hats in his room. He usually begins with a rough sketch of the shape and type of hat he envisions. “My girlfriend then orders the hat bodies for me online. I use a hat mold and an assortment of things like antique jewelry, ribbons and feathers to decorate them.”
Leen doesn’t just make women’s hats. “I made two hats for Father Satish Joseph at Immaculate Conception Church.”
Leen has a dream of Dayton becoming the hat capital of the nation. “A hat pulls the whole outfit together.” He said Heartland of Kettering has been very cooperative with his hat making. “You don’t need much room to make a hat.”