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Charity Challenge: Grow a Mustache, Keep Stiff Upper Lip

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Four presidents wore mustaches while in office: Teddy Roosevelt, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft.

Only once did a mustachioed presidential candidate beat a clean-shaven one: in 1908, when Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan.

The last major-party candidate to wear a mustache was a Republican, Thomas Dewey, in 1948.

Brian Hennessey, 25, who works for a D.C. nonprofit group, makes a point of knowing these things. Lately, as one of 22 "growers" in the second annual Mustaches 4 Kids DC charity event, he has become a little obsessed. Friends have been receiving a daily newsletter from him, charting "the different thoughts and emotions my mustache is feeling."

"The initial growing-out is the worst part," said Hennessey, who also participated last year. "You can't say you have a mustache. You have to say you're trying to grow one, and that's just embarrassing."

In a place and time when Tom Selleck's "Magnum, P.I." look is not viewed as fashion-forward, these men are stepping boldly into a world in which mustaches evoke strong reactions. There are mustache lovers, mustache haters and those who believe that what looks dashing on one face looks dreadful on another. For weeks, people have stared at them strangely, they said. Sometimes, even their own wives and girlfriends avoided them.

"You can't be self-conscious," said Dave Tootle, 36, a mechanical engineer who also took part last year. "People say, 'Dave, every time I see you, you've got something new on your face.' "

The event, which concluded last night with a 'Stache Bash, raised $12,004 for the Kids Care Fund at Children's Hospital, which supports special programs and other needs. Last year, with 15 men competing, the total was $7,000. Growers asked friends and co-workers to pledge donations during the five-week "whisker marathon."

At the party, the participants -- some sporting faint wisps of facial hair, others with full brushes -- arrived as various mustachioed characters, including a hacienda owner, the Red Baron and Selleck in a Hawaiian shirt. Tootle, who came dressed last year as the Ben Stiller character from the movie "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," complete with a mullet wig, had something else in mind this year.

"I'm taking a cue from who people say I look like, and this year, it's Freddie Mercury," he said, naming the late frontman for the band Queen. He was wearing tight white jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt and a studded belt.

The local group is part of a national organization formed in 1999, and similar fundraising events are held across the country.

"The thing is, it's kitschy, it's different," said Maggie Master, a freelance writer who helped organize the D.C. chapter. "If mustaches are going to be trendy again, we may have to do 'Mohawks for Children.' "

Eric "Spanky" Means, 28, who was crowned last year's Mustache King, said the charity's humorous approach appealed to him. "I'm not big on the walkathons that take a lot of effort," joked Means, a controller with a real estate company.

This year's Mustache King was Caldwell Bailey, 24, of the District.

For some, the early days of growing a mustache were a struggle.

Chris Hale, 28, a Spanish instructor at Georgetown University, said he got snickers from students during the most awkward phase of his mustache growth.

"They had a hard time taking me seriously," he said. "But at this point, it's clear I'm doing it on purpose -- it's not like I forgot to shave."

Hale said his role model has been his father. "Until he shaved it off a few years ago, my dad had a formidable mustache," Hale said.

Hale's father, a social studies teacher in Maine, has been showing his seventh-graders competing photos each week of Hale and his brother, Charlie, who lives in San Francisco and is participating in that city's event. The students have given Chris high marks. His girlfriend is another story.

"She's extremely not excited about my mustache," he said. "She just says, 'When are you going to get rid of that terrible thing on your lip?' "

Some of the growers anticipated the questions. They wore buttons that read, "Ask Me About My Mustache," but Hennessey said that didn't really work for him.

"People didn't often get close enough to read it," he said. "I guess I'm just a bristly character." Still, unlike the others, he won't be reaching for the razor -- not so fast, anyway.

"I'm going to keep it around for the holidays and bother my family," he said. "For the family pictures and all."

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