The Last Barber on Main Street

The Last Barber on Main Street »Play Video

EMMETT, Idaho (KBOI) -- The year was 1941. Glenn Miller recorded "Chattanooga Choo Choo." "Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio was on a hot streak, as a New York Yankee. And in Emmett, Idaho, a young barber was on one, too.

And now Ron Rekow is the last surviving barber on Main Street.

Unlike DiMaggio's, Rekow's hot streak never ended. Seventy-two years wielding his clippers--and counting.

"My kids don't remember when I wasn't here," Rekow says.

Ron's son, Terry, is sitting on a low bench facing his dad's single chair on the other side of the tidy, wood-paneled shop. He nods with a knowing smile, and couldn't be more proud.

"He's always been my hero," he says. "I never had to look any farther."

The door flies open and longtime customer Mel Gahley breezes in. Almost immediately he's in Ron's chair.

"One station says it's gonna be 100 again tomorrow, " he reports, referring to competing weather forecasts on the morning news. "Other says it's gonna be 98."

Ron picks up his scissors and begins snipping Gahley's thick white mane. Mane is the key word here because Rekow got his start trimming the manes of the horses on the family farm.

Those were the Depression years and things were tough with thirteen kids to feed and clothe.

"We didn't have anything," Rekow says quietly.

Even luck was in short supply.

At age 5, he fell off a disker when the draft horses spooked, and it sliced through his right shoulder. Rekow gestures to the shoulder and begins to test it by rotating his arm.

"Kid five years old doesn't have the brains to jump off or get out of the way," he says, referring to his brush with death so many years ago.

Ron's dad threw him into a box wagon and rushed his bleeding son into town. The local doctor pronounced the boy lucky, sewed him up and that was that.

"I was sore for days," says Ron, still wincing at the memory.

But nearly losing an arm was nothing when compared to what he faced in World War II. He was based in New Guinea, making bombing runs aboard the true workhorses of the war, the B-24 Liberators.

Looking back, he remembers wondering to himself, 'What did I do to deserve this?'"

The planes each carried ten men and the sorties often ended in the loss of entire crews

"Every time you went up, someone got killed and the plane was shot down," he says quietly.

But Rekow kept at barbering, cutting the hair of fellow GI's and earning enough to buy a car when the war ended.

"1940 Chevy. Four-door sedan, used," he says, emphasizing the word "used." It was a good car."

It was nothing if not practical, just like the driver.

Terry chimes in, "He's never had a phone in the shop. Just works on walk-in only."

Like the change of seasons, Rekow is reliable. He is also fastidious, laying out his cutting instruments the way a surgeon would: scissors on the left and heavy clippers on the right.

A reporter marvels, "You handle it like you're playing the piano." 

Ron responds: "Well, you do it every day, ya know?"

Customers appreciate the man's attention to detail. His friend Max comes in regular as rain.

"My wife says anytime I go to someone else," Max says without apology, "I need to go back to Ron."

Ron puts down the buzzing clippers and the shop goes silent. Then he grabs a plastic bottle on a counter behind him.

"Gonna finish up with a little tonic," he says, pouring the green liquid onto his hands.

Then he rubs it into Max's hair, a bit of theatricality he's honed over the decades.

Satisfied, he says, "I think we got 'er done, Max."

He might be a man of few words, but Ron has other ways of expressing himself, like playing his cherished accordion, one bought in the depths of the Depression with money he earned over a very long summer.
 
The accordion is a monster, nearly half the man's size. It gleams with a shiny black finish and mother-of-pearl accents.

He plays "Lara's Theme," from the movie "Dr. Zhivago."

Rekow proves with this impromptu concert that he's a man with skills to spare. And, at age 92, he has no plans to put down his scissors.

Son Terry has heard the retirement question too many times.

"Whenever he's asked about that, he says, 'I'm gonna retire when they throw dirt in my face.'"

They say time waits for no man. Well, maybe just one.

Ron Rekow, the barber of civility.