Out from behind the barber chair
Instead of trimming around ears and thinning out eyebrows, Gary Hill now trims and thins his bushes and flowers. He is also listening to far fewer conversations and not watching as much TV as he used to.
After his 50-year career as a barber, Hill retired and spent his last day behind his barber’s chair on Sept. 27.
“I started cutting in 1963, first of July,” he said, “and I was six years in Burlington, and then came up here in 1969 and I’ve been here ever since — a little over 50 years.”
Hill opened his shop by 7:30 every morning, Monday through Friday. If he didn’t have a customer, he often sat in his chair to read a newspaper. Closing time was 5:30, but he often didn’t get done cutting the hair of his last customer of the day until 6:30.
“Thursday nights, I stayed late for the out-of-town people, people who couldn’t get in during the day,” Hill said.
Actually another big reason for staying open longer on Thursday night had to do with his son going to college and playing football.
“That was back in the ‘80s,” he said. “We were open Saturdays back then. I liked my Saturdays and Sundays off so good, I just decided, ‘you know what — I’m going to be open Monday through Friday and Thursday night.”
Hill said he comes from a barber family.
“I’ve got two older brothers and a brother-in-law who were barbers,” he said, “so I was fourth in line. The oldest one got started and I guess the next one saw that he could make a living, so we just kept going.”
When Hill first came to Washington, there were nine other barbers in town and they all kept busy — until the Beatles dominated pop culture in the 1960s.
“Back in the ‘60s when I started barbering, most everything was short — flattops, crew cuts. Short cuts. Then the Beatles came. Wow! In the ‘70s we lost over half of our barbers because long hair came in. We never got them back … Out of my barber class of 1963 in Cedar Rapids … only three stayed with barbering.”
Before the Beatles, there were men who came in once a week to keep their flattops or crew cuts in shape.
Hill took some classes in hair styling — shampoos, cuts and styling and blow- drying hair. That carried him through, he said.
Thinking of the past, Hill said that he had customers he only saw when they had to get ready for a wedding or a funeral. The rest of the time, he said, the wife would cut her husband’s hair.
Recently Hill said he got to thinking about some of the families who came to his shop. He cut the hair of five generations, he figured.
A day he will never forget happened when he was in barber college in 1963 — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“I remember that day well,” he said of Nov. 22, 1963. “That was the only day in barber college that our instructor ever allowed us to have a radio on. He would not let us have a radio on for anything and that day he turned it on. I remember that very well.”
Another day he will always remember is 9/11.
“I was standing there cutting a guy’s hair and there were a couple of people waiting,” he said. “We were talking about something hitting the trade center and one of the guys sitting back there said, well, another plane just hit the trade center. And we said, ‘No, that’s the same one, they’re just replaying it.’ He said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So we all just stopped and watched and sure enough there was another plane. I remember that well.”
The most common topics of conversation in the barbershop were the weather, politics and sports.
“Sports was a big thing,” Hill said. “A lot of people like sports. They can talk sports all day. I kept ball games or ESPN on TV a lot. I’d flip it over to the news, depending on who was in there. You kind of know who likes what, so I just turned the station according to who was in there. Of course, when school was out, you’ve got to turn the cartoons on when kids were there. That helped them sit still.”
Hill used a board across the arms of his barber’s chair for the young boys. One of those boys was Skyler Leyden who is now the new owner of the shop. Hill said that Leyden has a picture of himself sitting on the board and that Leyden always wanted to work in Hill’s barbershop. Leyden is the new owner.
Now that he’s retired, Hill said he does miss the people.
“You know, when you’re around people 10 hours a day all your life, you miss the people, but gosh, I will be around town anywhere and, man, I run into old customers everywhere,” he said. “They come shake your hand, congratulate you. I’m still around. I’ll still see them. I just won’t see them in the barbershop anymore.”