You Can’t Take Yourself Too Seriously With a Turtle on Your Head
How an iconic animal cap helped a man in his 60s come out of his shell.
Lynn Johnson is feeling cranky.
It’s a Wednesday morning in March, no more than 72 hours after daylight saving time, and the 65-year-old is driving to a Cracker Barrel near his home in Bloomington, Indiana. For more than 15 years, he and the same core group of friends have kept to the same weekly ritual, schmoozing and gossiping over breakfast plates of eggs, fried apples, and hash brown casseroles.
Usually, Johnson looks forward to these rendezvous. But not today. He slept poorly last night due to the time change and now he’s not only tired, but hangry.
“I am thinking of the side of me that wants to revert to being a grumpy old man,” he tells OK Whatever. “Yes, it’s really in there, often big time.”
But by the time he arrives at the rustic, Americana eatery, his mood has lifted. Why? Because he put his turtle hat on.
For more than 20 years, the tortoise-shaped headgear — which looks like a newsboy cap with four plush feet and black plastic beads for eyes — has been Johnson’s constant reminder “to chill out, slow down, and remember to be friendly and pleasant.”
If he’s in a bad mood, it doesn’t last long because his bizarre accessory always inspires smiles and conversation. A veritable ice-breaker, the turtle hat has led to incalculable interactions, numerous new friendships, and unforgettable tiny but meaningful moments.
It has made TSA agents at airports chuckle and received compliments from on-duty bus drivers. He’s even officiated weddings wearing the hat. For Johnson, it’s not just a quirky item. It’s also a carte blanche to be as social and affable as he wants, without feeling any embarrassment.
“The hat has allowed me to be my most true self,” he says. “It has been like wearing a sign that says, ‘Mostly harmless’ or ‘Don’t be afraid; weird but safe.’ ”
Johnson discovered the turtle hat after tearing his ACL while skiing in Colorado in the mid-’90s. As he was hobbling to dinner at the resort on crutches, he spotted a peculiar cap in the gift shop’s window. Because he’s always had a fondness for things that are weird and goofy, he had to buy it.
“I snapped it up so fast,” Johnson says. “And I began wearing it immediately.”
From that point on, the hat became a constant fixture of Johnson’s outfits, melding seamlessly with his wardrobe of chinos and floral Hawaiian shirts.
If Johnson has a spirit animal, it’s probably the turtle — and not just because he’s been sporting one as a hat for the last 20 years.
Growing up in southern Ohio in the 1960s, he and his father often found Eastern box turtles in the wild and would occasionally take them home. “That was a standard thing then,” he says. “You’d pick them up off the road so they wouldn’t get run over.”
Later, when his family moved to Zimbabwe, his interest in them increased. He’d find native leopard tortoises walking around in the bush and would sometimes carry them home to live in his family’s garden. Every now and then, when he came across the skeletons of dead tortoises, he’d remove their shells and later display them in his bedroom.
But even though he had an interest in them, he never expected turtles would someday play a central role in his life.
Years later, after stints as a religious school principal, biology teacher, and stay-at-home dad, Johnson bought a screen-printing and embroidery store near Indiana University’s Bloomington campus that marketed to sororities and fraternities. He ran the shop for 11 years until the internet affected sales and he started losing money.
Beleaguered with stress, Johnson developed “a low-key depression” that stayed with him for years. Even after he sold the business and cleared his debt, the ennui was still with him. When he finally got over it and managed to change his outlook on life, it was all thanks to the turtle hats.
Up until that point, Johnson had only owned two turtle hats — both made by a company in Santa Barbara, California, that long ago went out of business. When his caps started to get worn-out and “nasty” after decades of frequent wear, Johnson began entertaining the idea of having a new turtle hat specially made for himself. He emailed a factory in China to see if they could manufacture the hat using the design and measurements of the original, which he had taken apart and deconstructed. The factory said it could, but there was a catch. Johnson couldn’t order just one as he’d hoped. He’d have to buy at least 1,000.
So he shelved the idea for the next three years, revisiting it only after selling the screen-printing business. One of his daughters had recently created a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund an artist collective, and Johnson, buoyed by her success, decided to revisit his wonky business plan.
At the end of 2016, he ran a wildly popular Kickstarter that went viral, earning Johnson a few seconds in the national limelight, three TV show approaches, and more than $30,000.
It also eviscerated any remnants of depression he was still holding onto.
“I went full-time into my happy place: wearing and sharing the hat,” he says. “I moved from wearing it on Saturdays and vacations to almost constantly, and that meant more smiles coming to me, and from me, all the time.”
He now sells his millinery through his website, www.theturtlehat.com, and his collection has expanded to include a suite of products — a sea turtle hat, a sand dollar hat, and the classic turtle hat, available in three different colors.
Customers can buy the hats singularly, for about $25 each, or in bulk. (When OK Whatever spoke with Johnson, he’d just received an order for 250 hats.)
There are now turtle hat customers around the world, mostly in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, but also in far-flung places like Japan and Norway. Fans and satisfied shoppers have sent “the most darling” letters to Johnson, praising him, among other things, for reviving the long out-of-production and hard-to-find hat. From strangers, he’s received poems and songs about the turtle hat, as well as photos of children, teenagers, adults, and dogs modeling the products. Athletes competing in triathlons have worn them. Foodies shopping at farmers markets, and ministers vacationing in the Dominican Republic have worn turtle hats, too. Once, at a restaurant in Indiana, Johnson traded one of his caps with a waiter for a loaf of the kitchen’s artisan bread.
With the Kickstarter over, Johnson has made quite an effort to keep his sales up. He’s traveled around the country — and a little bit outside of it — cold-calling retail stores in vacation hotspots like Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and southern Florida. He’s approached zoos and museums in Portland, Indianapolis, and St. Louis about selling his hats at their gift stores, and he’s used contacts from Business Network International, a referral organization of which he is a member, to glean where best to shop his wares.
Johnson has also put a lot of effort into brand awareness. He keeps a blog, posts on social media, and if anyone expresses the slightest bit of interest in a hat in real life, he’s quick to hand them a business card. With help from his wife, a friend in the Screen Actors Guild, and her husband, he’s also filmed — and starred — in half-a-dozen promotional videos on YouTube. In “Things You Can Do In a Turtle Hat” Johnson rides a unicycle and binges on doughnuts while wearing a turtle hat. In “Bling For the Turtle Hat,” he recommends transforming a cap with a missing eye into “a wonderful pirate” by adding a miniature eye patch.
Johnson has future plans for the business, and they range from grandiose to pessimistic. Turning a profit would be nice, of course, but so would expanding his hats to include more turtle species and even other animals. (They would, however, have to be non-aggressive as Johnson is firm about sticking solely with friendly ones. “I’m never going to make a shark or a crocodile,” he says.)
In the best case scenario, Johnson can foresee the formation of turtle hat clubs, where fans of the unique headwear can meet up for social outings or philanthropic endeavors. “They could get together for a beer, or a coffee in the morning. Or they could mentor a younger person in being a good citizen.”
Johnson’s worst case scenario for his turtle hat business is that people will lose interest in it over the next few years. As with other viral sensations, he worries his novelty hats will succumb to obscurity and become just another fad.
Still, whatever happens, Johnson’s ready for it.
“I won’t be heartbroken,” he says.
That’s because the good stuff has already happened. By starting a turtle hat business, Johnson has solved his low hat supply problem for life. He has also spread the joy of wearing a turtle hat to many. He’s even made “a small trickle” of dough from it.
More than anything, it’s helped Johnson get his groove back.
“I’m back to being the real me who is ebullient and positive and optimistic all the time. I’m back to doing something I love and enjoy,” he says.
For now, he’ll keep on doing what he’s doing, peddling his $25 hats and remembering each day not to take himself too seriously. He’s pretty confident it will all work out in the end, and even if it doesn’t, Johnson already knows what he’ll do with the thousands of caps piled in his garage.
He’ll take them to Burning Man and just give them away.