* Longest serving steward, 78, a recognisable figure
* Black hat stands out among the traditional straw panamas
By Michael Roddy
LONDON, July 1 (Reuters) - After years ushering VIPs to their seats in Wimbledon, David Spearing has himself become a minor celebrity at the tournament, in a black hat that has earned him the nickname "General Custer".
At 78, Spearing is Wimbledon's longest serving steward, working at the London grand-slam fortnight for 41 years, the last 17 of which have been on Centre Court, looking after players' relatives and prestigious guests such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and rapper Jay-Z.
The hat earned Spearing a little fame of his own when a prominent presenter on British radio asked on air who was the mystery man in the VIP box.
"(Presenter) Terry Wogan is a very keen tennis player so he's watching and commenting and he was saying, 'Who is this guy wearing the black hat in the players' box? Looks like General Custer to me' - because that was a flat-rimmed hat," Spearing told Reuters.
"Then people started phoning in and said, 'It looks like Colonel Sanders' - all these kind of jokes," said Spearing, whose white goatee gives him more than a passing resemblance to the fried chicken icon.
The hat, it turns out, was never intended as a fashion statement, he says.
When he went to buy a standard straw-coloured panama from his social club in Abu Dhabi, where the London-born engineer spends most of the other 50 weeks of the year, it only had a black one, and let him have it as a gift.
Spearing is on his second black hat, which sports the club's logo and whose label says it is made of "100 percent pure paper".
"So I've got to watch the rain with this one," Spearing said. "It'll last another five years but I'm not so sure how long I'm going to last."
His answer, though, whenever anyone asks when he plans to retire from Centre Court's VIP box is: "I think when I leave that box it's going to be in another box." (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)