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Cincinnati's "Hat Man" Also Fixture on Covington Campaign Trail

Known for his tall, paper hats seen from blocks away in Downtown Cincinnati, Avtar "the Hat Man" Gill was a fixture of the Queen City's quirkier landscape. The ever-changing messages that stretched more than a foot over the 71-year old's head usually offered quick commentary on the news of the day.

It was learned Monday that those messages will no longer appear on the city's streets. Gill's body was found over the weekend inside the motel where he lived. No cause of death has been released publicly according to reports at WLWT and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Hat Man's messages were not exclusive to the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River. Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank tapped Gill and his walking billboards to land a seat on the city's governing body during his first campaign in 2010. 

"It was a neat trip," Frank said. "He would come to my events and there'd be multi-millionaires there, and there'd be the Hat Man and he was the center for everybody." Gill would be spotted on both sides of the river sporting various slogans for Frank's campaign after a connection was made between Frank campaign volunteer Robby Sweetser who knew Gill from Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.

"I think it was invaluable, particularly in the primary the first time out," Frank said. "He would go to every event from the fireworks to Oktoberfest, Maifest, he rode the bus. He would just walk around with his hat on."

Frank and Gill developed a friendship over the course of the commissioner's two successful campaigns. "I had long conversations with him. He'd come up to my office," said Frank, who works as an executive in the financial industry inside a Cincinnati high rise, an unlikely place for someone who lived as modestly and frugally as Gill. "We'd talk about everything from politics to organic foods. The guy had an opinion about everything," Frank said. "We'd talk for hours at a time. He would surprise you. He wasn't just a crazy guy. He just wasn't like you or me in terms of what he had priorities on."

While Gill's background may be mysterious in media reports, Frank said he learned that the Hat Man immigrated from Indonesia through a relationship with the Peace Corps. Gill also completed a college education at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills and worked as a technician in a medical lab, according to Frank. Gill also collected a pension, Frank said, but chose to live frugally. He was also physically stronger than one might expect.

"I'm surprised to hear that he's dead. He was stronger than an ox," said Frank, who felt Gill's strength during each handshake. "I wouldn't want to arm wrestle him or anything else. He was wiry strong. I'm very surprised to hear of him going. The guy walked everywhere and was in shape."

Gill also drank a gallon of chocolate milk every day, Frank said, and recently met his hero: the Naked Cowboy, a Cincinnati native who has become a performing tourist attraction at Times Square in New York City. "He was over the moon for meeting the Naked Cowboy."

He also took his hat-making very seriously. Starting with a paper crown from Burger King, Gill would often use other materials from a Downtown Cincinnati printer shop to construct the rest of his message. "Whatever he wrote on his hat was something to celebrate," Frank said. "He had the most beautiful penmanship. Whatever he wrote, he took pride in. He was an artist in his own mind."
"He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant," Frank said.
"He loved the news. He loved good news. He didn't concentrate on anything bad."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Avtar "The Hat Man" Gill (L) and Steve Frank/Courtesy of Steve Frank