John G. Macas, 72, longtime owner of Ecuador Hat Co. downtown

March 10, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John G. Macas, president and owner of a hat company that has kept Baltimoreans in fedoras, tweed caps and cream-colored Panamas for nearly 70 years, died Tuesday of heart failure. He was 72.

Mr. Macas grew up in and worked his entire life at Ecuador Hat Co., the business that was founded by his father, Roberto Macas, in the early 1930s.

Born in New York City, he was raised on Mulberry Street and attended Baltimore public schools.

The elder Mr. Macas was born and raised in Ecuador and moved in 1925 to New York to work in a straw hat factory.

In 1930, he and his brother traveled to Baltimore to work fashioning straw hats for Men's Hats Inc., one of the foremost manufacturers of straw hats. It was during the city's golden age of hat making, at a time when most of the world's straw hats were made in Baltimore.

When he opened his business at 301 W. Fayette St. in 1934, he named it after the country of his birth, and it was there that his son learned the business from the ground up.

Until his death, John Macas was still going to work every day -- greeting customers, fitting hats and pleased that the business that is being displaced by the west-side redevelopment project had found a new home at 413 W. Baltimore St.

"The present store was to be closed and vacated by March 11, and it seems John went the same time as the old store," said Dale E. Lawson, a cousin and now owner of the business.

"He had helped select the new store and wanted us to take as much as we could from the old store to the new location so it would look the same," said Mr. Lawson.

In addition to Baltimoreans, customers from five states flocked to the store, and Mr. Macas counted many celebrities as loyal clients.

He sold 20 Kangol tweed caps to Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood and stars of Broadway shows playing Baltimore. Cast members of "Homicide: Life on the Street" also were frequent customers, as was Ravens' defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, whose trademark broad-brimmed hat was purchased there.

"John was outgoing and always was smiling. He enjoyed what he did and was a master at selling hats. He always had great patience when helping customers," said Mr. Lawson.

"His motto was `Let the customer pick the hat. That way they'll be happy with their purchase and not bring it back,'" said the cousin.

If Mr. Macas had sales acumen, he was also an accomplished hat maker and knew how to produce hats in the store's basement workrooms when customers had special requests. His repertoire included the Monte Christo, considered by many hat wearers to be the Rolls-Royce of straw hats.

Ecuador Hat Co. is one of the last companies in Maryland to custom-make, block and clean hats.

"He learned from his father at an early age, and he could even weave a Monte Christo Panama under water, and it's all hand work," said Mr. Lawson.

He said his cousin's favorite hats, which he liked to wear, were a conservative black homburg and, in the summer, a snappy straw. However, he disliked wearing or selling baseball caps.

"He never wanted to sell baseball caps because he thought they cheapened the store, and he only wanted to sell quality hats," said Mr. Lawson.

Heartened that hats were once again fashionable and trade magazines such as GQ carried advertising selling hats, Mr. Macas never abandoned a personal crusade.

"He'd write hat manufacturers and tell them to make bigger hats because `heads are bigger today,'" said Mr. Lawson, laughing.

The longtime resident of The Alameda was a communicant of SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

He is survived by many nieces and nephews; and his fiancee, Marguirite Hartzell of Baltimore.

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