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Vanderbilt Mansion security guard, tour guide write 'magical' children's book about lost family heirloom

Max, the Vanderbilt Mansion museum feline, and a

Max, the Vanderbilt Mansion museum feline, and a lost hat are the subjects of a children's book co-written by Ed Clampitt, security guard at the estate in Centerport, and retired teacher and tour guide Ellen Mason. All proceeds from the book, published in October, go to the museum. Credit: Courtesy Ed Clampitt

This is a story about a cat and a hat.

Not the iconic Dr. Seuss 1957 children's tale, but one based on events that took place some years ago on the North Shore estate of William K. Vanderbilt II.

Magic envelops the story, co-written for kids by a security guard and a tour guide at the Vanderbilt Mansion Museum and Planetarium in Centerport. It tells of a hat lost by a 3-year-old boy whose family visited the museum, with key roles played by a feline and a couple of boxes of doughnuts.

As anyone who recalls the Dr. Seuss story knows, a fish does his best to restrain the antics of "The Cat in the Hat." In fact, there is a Hall of Fishes on the Gold Coast estate that opened to the public in 1922 with the Eagle's Nest mansion opening as a Suffolk County museum in 1950.

But while the top hat in Dr. Seuss is tall with red-and-white stripes, the lost hat in "Patches and Stripes," is a cotton blue-and-white conductors cap. It was emblazoned with patches sewn on by family members who had worked on different railroads and was handed down from the boy's great-grandfather.

One of those patches, recalled former teacher and tour guide Ellen Mason, who co-wrote the book, is from the New York Central System. "That is the railroad started and maintained by the Vanderbilt family," she said by email.

"Since I have not written poetry before, I marvel at the impact this book has on children and adults alike," she said of the book, which is written in verse.

The hat in the book is an irreplaceable heirloom revealing the pride and work ethic that saw a family through the years.

One of the stars of the book is Max, a tiger-striped friendly cat who roams the museum grounds and who has won over countless friends, including co-author security guard Ed Clampitt. He bought Max a heated house just by the gatehouse and generously contributes to Max’s meals.

"I admittedly have never been a ‘cat person,’" said Clampitt, though like others before him, he apparently found the supposed great divide between dogs and cats rather easy to leap over.

"He’s my buddy," said Clampitt, and Max, "has an almost iconic following with our guests" since he arrived about a decade ago.

The book, published in October, is called a "Vanderbilt Magic" story. It costs $10, with proceeds donated to the museum. It tells the story of how Max escorts and assists the security guards on their hunt, looking everywhere the hat could possibly be, before Clampitt finds it between two glass cases.

In truth, the family had left hatless and dejected. Clampitt explained the mother was "heartbroken" at the loss. But, according to Clampitt, one of the security guards, who saw the family's email inquiring about it, actually found the hat in less dramatic fashion.

"He pointed up toward the wall … There it was, hanging quietly on the utility hook, out of place with a few hangers, a reflective safety vest and a slightly broken umbrella, that precious hat, right there hidden in plain sight," Clampitt said.

The grateful mother arrived, he recalled, and "All in one motion, she took the hat from my hand and embraced me in a thankful hug. Her tears morphed into an all-out sob as she repeated 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'"

The mother, Catherine Hoang of Huntington, recalled in an email: "Finding that hat was like getting a piece of my mom, who passed away, back again. Ed was my hero."

Hoang said the actual hat did have patches, but they were sewn on after being collected from train meets and shows her parents attended while dating and handed down to her and her children.

As for the doughnuts, Clampitt brings the guards boxes of the pastries each Sunday morning but had forgotten to do so on the day of the search. When Hoang came to collect the hat, he wrote, she brought the guards a special gift — two boxes of doughnuts with the words "Thank You" written on them.

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