DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - "Hair today and gone tomorrow" is definitely not the story of two veteran Decatur barbers.
Wilbur Roosevelt, 82, is still snipping his way through an extraordinary 61-year-career and has yet to hang up his scissors at the J&R Barber Shop he founded in 1961.
Jim Burgess, who ran the Roffler of Decatur barber shop on South Oakland Avenue, finally did give the trade the retirement brush-off May 1, but no one can accuse him of cutting and running early. He just decided that after 80 years of his life had combed on by and 55 of those had been spent barbering, it was time to put his aching feet up and shave off a little time to stand at ease.
What shines out in the story of both men is the satisfaction they have received from a job that let them cut out their own business niche and do it their way. Roosevelt is a Forsyth resident who works Tuesdays and Thursdays in J&R shop at 3151 N. Woodford St. and works other days in assisted living and nursing homes.
"I didn't like factory work," he said. "I wanted to learn a trade. Turns out that barbering was good for me. Why should I retire?"
He has a presidential name. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt each served at least eight years.
Wilbur Roosevelt's father was a distant relative of the New York-based Roosevelt family that farmed in Southern Illinois in the mid-1800s.
Wilbur Roosevelt once met Eleanor Roosevelt and, in 1952, he also met FDR's son Jimmy Roosevelt while in the 6th Army at Camp Cook, California Born on a farm near Albion, the barber had raised hogs during high school days and was an Illinois National Guard member; he served during the Korean War.
Coming home in 1953, Roosevelt worked for a time in an auto fuel pump plant in Fairfield before deciding to become a barber. "The auto plant pay was good," he said. "But there was a layoff every year."
He learned barbering at a barber college on South Main Street in Decatur, a nine-month course that cost $550. Upon graduation, he joined the White barber shop at Edward Street and Grand Avenue. It was Jan. 17, 1954, and haircuts cost $1.25.
J&R Barber Shop at 1904 N. Main St. was next, in partnership with Randall Jones. Jones later left for work at Caterpillar Inc.
In 1997, Roosevelt sold out to Gary Whelan. The shop continued in that location until moving a couple of years ago to 3151 N. Woodford St. Roosevelt has been active in the Korean War Veterans Association, especially in the education department, visiting schools, and also as chaplain.
Roosevelt's wife, Betty, died in 1989. Nowadays, he likes to fill his spare time by brushing up on his gardening.
"I'm still a farm boy, and I like to grow things," he said. He is the father of Ava Schwartz of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and Rita Roosevelt of Indianapolis, Indiana, and he has two grandchildren.
The newly retired Burgess is proud to say he raised two boys and a girl with his wife, Maryalis, and the profits of barbering helped send them to all to college; now the kids are off pursuing careers ranging from tool design to engineering and accountancy.
"Maryalis was a nurse and worked three days a week," Burgess said. "And by her working and me working and the kids working in the summertime, we got them all through school. When the kids got out of college, nobody owed any money except me, and I didn't owe that much."
Burgess is the first to admit a man isn't going to get rich barbering, but he says you can make a good living at it if you're skilled, conscientious and know how to shoot the breeze. "Yeah, you've got to have the ability to talk to people," he adds. You can't be a bump on a log while they are sitting in that chair."
He'd been laboring on the Peoria assembly line for Caterpillar early in his working career but grew tired of seeing his job cut in periodic layoffs. A friend suggested he try barbering, and Burgess came to Decatur for training. After a nine-month course, he was cutting hair professionally by 1958. The Roffler name of his business came from a patented haircut system he learned.
"I was trained well, and I was always good with my hands," he said. "It worked out."
There are some things barbers have to get used to that they don't teach in college, however. One of the toughest is coping with the emotional loss of longtime customers, whose receding hairlines track the passing years until that day when they run out of time for appointments.
"I had customers that I cut for 50 years," Burgess said. "And there was one year, about four or five years ago, I probably lost 15 customers that all died in the same winter. That's hard, but you have to get used to it. And it'll always be the customers I miss most now I'm not doing this job; I miss the camaraderie, you know?"
Every barber also has his share of funny stories, and Burgess, who wishes he'd kept a daily journal, has some hair-larious tales.
One of his services was the custom fitting and trimming of toupees, and he recalled one frustratingly picky and balding customer who just couldn't make up his mind about whether to invest in a new rug, his indecisiveness progressively thinning his barber's patience.
"I finally told him, 'I thought I knew what you wanted, but I guess I don't. Tell me again what you want?' And he looked at me, at my head and he said, 'What I really want is your hair.' So I reached up, took my own hairpiece off and threw it at him and said, 'Take the son of a b----," said Burgess with a laugh.
"He had no idea I was wearing one, too."
Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, http://bit.ly/1iwWhXu
Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com
This is an Illinois Exchange story offered by the (Decatur) Herald & Review.
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