APPLE VALLEY, Minn. -- The collection started in 1983 when an aunt died and left him a Cuban straw hat decorated with little palm trees and a man leading a donkey on a rope.

Today, Steven Hylbak has 152 whimsical hats and one for every occasion — a mint-chocolate-chip-ice-cream-cone hat for a trip to the mall; a Christmas tree hat that lights up and plays music as the holidays approach.

“I make people smile and laugh,” he said. “And then, (it’s) the right time. I tell my story.”

While opening presents on Christmas Eve 1981 in Wheat Ridge, Colo., Hylbak felt excruciating head pain. He was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured brain aneurysm.

The father of two was unconscious for 11 days, and his wife, Mar, feared he would never wake up.

“I felt like I was going on a wing and a prayer,” she said. “I (couldn’t) get my hopes too high.”

During his recovery, Hylbak had surgeries to correct his sight and to prevent further rupturing of two other brain aneurysms.

To improve his memory, a psychologist had him draw a picture from his past.

After three months trying to recall the scene, he finally drew it on paper: a rough sketch of the Colorado mountains, trees his father soon would chop down, a shining sun and a man riding a horse with a big smile on his face and a hat on his head.

“I promise I won’t cry,” Hylbak says often and while drawing the picture.

“I promise you, you’re not going to cry so much,” Hylbak recalls the psychologist telling him. “You’re going to have a big smile on your face. And the sun’s going to be shining down on (your family.)

“And you’re going to be a happy man someday, and you’re going to wear hats to make people smile.”

‘The Hat Man’

And he does. He wears a hat while shopping at Hy-Vee, another while pumping gas at Speedway, another while blowing snow off the driveway at his Apple Valley home.

Hylbak’s favorite is a cap that reads “2nd Chance.” He wears it to commemorate his second chance at life.

“It’s not just the hat. It’s all of his energy that goes with it,” said Amy Presler, who has known Hylbak for years. “He’s just a pure, kind-hearted individual that just really wants to make people smile. And he gets to share that by wearing hats that start conversations.”

Walking around the Lakeville Hy-Vee, the 69-year-old Hylbak jokes with almost everyone — teasing employees in the food stations, pharmacy and the Starbucks.

“Steve has developed this wonderful ability to connect with strangers,” his wife said. “The hats open the door … and then he has an opportunity to share his heart and warmth.”

Hylbak still struggles with his memory. He takes written notes of what he needs to do or interesting stuff he sees.

“You’ve gotta be happy,” he said. “You gotta go hard in life. You gotta tell your loved ones you love them every day.”

What makes the hats special

Hylbak gets two-thirds of his hats as gifts. The others? He buys them and often convinces his wife they are worth the price. His most expensive hat was $36, he said.

While his hats can be fun — like an orange-colored fish hat or a fuzzy hat with horns — they can also hold deeper meanings. Written across one is “Steven Leo” to honor his father, Leo, who died when Hylbak was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.

Hylbak likes wearing hats, and he also likes it when others react to them. Hylbak said they often react like “anybody that’s different.”

“Some people look away, some people come up and ask,” he said. “I give them a very shortened version of my aneurysm story. Say, that’s the reason why I wear my hats, to make you smile and laugh because we only live a short amount of time.”

Presler said when her kids were growing up they instantly recognized Hylbak around town. The first time they met him was at an Apple Valley IHOP.

“That’s when he really became the crazy hat man to our family,” she said. “If I just say, ‘Steve, the crazy hat guy,’ they all know exactly who I’m talking about … All I would have to say is that and they’ll instantly smile.”

But she said it’s his positive energy that causes them to smile, not just the hats.