BOZEMAN — For Katherine Erickson, it all started with a wolf hat she bought from Yellowstone.
Erickson is a paraprofessional at Hawthorne Elementary School who has served as the school's crossing guard for the last 12 years. She's become famous among her students for her eclectic mix of hats she wears while helping them cross Rouse Avenue.
"I was trying to find a way to become more visible," she said of her hats. "And it started off a snowball effect of kids and siblings looking for hats for me."
She estimates she has more than 50 hats to date, including dragons, raccoons and cartoon characters. She rotates through them, trying to have a different hat each day.
"My favorite part of the day is I get to be the first one to greet them in the morning and ask them how their day was in the afternoon," she told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Erickson and her hats have gotten so popular it's common for students to gift her silly and different hats.
"Sometimes I get a hat and I think 'Would I wear this?' but then I realize it's not about me. It's about them finding something special for me to wear and I'll wear it no matter what it is," she said.
Over the years, a few different hats stand out for Erickson. There's the big red dragon with its wings spread out, a bison hat that's always a hit with the kids, and a classic chicken hat.
Then there's the hat she wears only one time each year. For Halloween, Erickson ushers children to and from school in a big, purple gorilla head hat.
Erickson said she attempted retirement once but it didn't stick because she missed the children.
"I missed their interaction," she said. "They're a lot of fun and a lot of joy."
Parents will often tell Erickson their children ask them to drive around the block to where she is so they can see what hat she has on that day. Students will also bring it up in the halls when they see her throughout the school day.
Throughout her years as a crossing guard, Erickson has become recognizable to many people for her hats.
She recounts a time where she and her sister were sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast when a woman came up and recognized her as the "hat lady."
Since there are plenty of kids who walk to school throughout Montana's cold weather, Erickson is always on crossing guard duty, no matter the weather.
Erickson, who grew up in Iowa "where it was very cold and windy" said she gets through those cold spells with lots of layers. In the recent sub-zero temperatures, she had extra layers on and little warmers in her socks, gloves, pockets and on her legs.
"I'm absolutely warm," she said. "People are surprised I'm out there but we have a lot of kids where they walk no matter the weather."
Erickson remembers one student who would always bring her hot cocoa or some tea on those cold days. Recently, her grandson was describing one of his favorite camp counselors at Montana State University summer camp. It turned out to be the same student who had brought her warm beverages on his walk to school.
"Finding out it was my student that was so near and dear to my heart was such a wonderful feeling," she said.
Through the years, it's not uncommon for Erickson to become familiar with the younger siblings of older students and their families.
"It's really fun when little siblings come along," she said. "I remember them in their mommy's belly and their older siblings. Having someone you recognize when you're starting your first year (of school) is really wonderful."
When Erickson isn't greeting students at the crosswalk, she's a paraprofessional at the school's learning lab for students who might need extra support or a quiet place to work.
"You have the ability to take extra time, allows them that processing time," she said. "… They're just really neat kids to work with."
Erickson said she had similar experiences growing up and went to something like the learning lab as a child. Those experiences have helped her empathize and show the students they are just as capable as other students.
"It doesn't make or break who you are if you need a quiet place. It just means that you learn differently," she said.
As fun as her hats are, for Erickson, it comes back to why she got into education in the first place: to help children. The silly hats are a way to stand out in a crowd and see to the safety of her students.
"Our drivers are very sidetracked," she said. "Maybe they're coming back from skiing and they're tired or rushing somewhere, being visible is super important."
Erickson, who will turn 60 soon, said every time she considers retiring again, the kids' joy and kindness keep her working.
"I'll probably be the crossing guard with the walker, getting the kids across using my walker," she said with a laugh.