Legend & Lore: Jerry Bell
Sep 10, 2012 03:14PM ● Published by Emma Dittmann
Gallery: Legend & Lore: Judy (Bell) Hein [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
By: Judy (Bell) Hein
Many thanks to Ann Kulka for her invaluable help with obtaining the barbershop history for this piece.
“If I keep this up I'll probably end up with a barber's claw from holding the shears all day.”
When said with a slight nasal quality while looking out over a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, you might recognize this as a quote from Floyd Lawson, the famous owner of the Mayberry clip joint institution on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Now as much as hip trouble, back issues, foot pain and “barber’s claw” are a part of barbering, so are a good conversation, a bit of gossip and a comforting listening ear. I know for a fact that my brother, Jerry Bell, does not have a “barber’s claw.” But with apologies to Howard Sprague, I am changing only the last of his words to honor this Beaver Dam icon. “There’s three ways to get news out in Mayberry. There’s telephone, telegraph, and tell Floyd.” Make it rhyme by replacing “Floyd” with “Jerry” and you have a tribute to my brother’s wonderful way with words. He didn’t have “two chairs, no waiting,” but he would do whatever he could with his one chair to squeeze you into his appointment-filled days. Jerry also had a charm with those little children who were scared of their first shears experience. It makes me wonder how many people have an honored place in their child’s photo album for that snip of hair and special first haircut photo with Jerry at the helm of the chair. Over the past few months he cut back his hours, knowing it would be just too arduous a decision to call it quits in one fell swoop. So after 50 years of the service profession of barbering, he officially retired on August 2. It was an extremely difficult decision for him, as he is not just someone who is a barber; he is a barber who is someone. He lived and breathed his barbering career. He loved every second of it and never thought of it as a job. It was a lifestyle, and he has earned many informal career distinctions over those years, including shoulder and neck masseuse, counselor and sports commentator. So put on a cape, find a comfy chair, and sit back and enjoy reading a little about Jerry’s life.
Our parents, Jim “Wallie” and Irene Bell had four children, all born in Beaver Dam, Jerry being their second oldest in 1944, following older brother Jim in 1943, and preceding sisters Judy in 1958 and Jan in 1962. Speaking of our parents, they were the epitome of loving, nurturing role models, setting wonderful examples of lifelong learning, service to others, importance of friendships and a good work ethic. You may remember Dad’s small business out of our home, where he owned Bell’s Shoe Repair, and Mom kept the ledgers in order. Dad would say, “Jesus fixes people’s souls and I fix their heels.” Jerry attended elementary, junior and senior high school in Beaver Dam, where he had a paper route and worked at Spurgeon’s. Brother Jim remembers their bedroom walls being covered with pin-ups . . . of cars, that is! He graduated in 1962, and when Dad asked him what he wanted to be, he replied, “I don’t know, maybe a plumber.” Once Dad told him what that entailed, he changed his tune to, “I don’t know, maybe a barber,” and enrolled in Davenport Barber College in Iowa, where he began cutting hair after one month of school. Haircut prices varied from 65¢, 85¢ and $1.00, depending on the experience of the barber. He graduated from the college in 1963. He recently returned to the Iowa site only to find that the college is no longer there and has been replaced by a parking lot.
From 1963-1965, he worked for Louie “Slim” Pohlman in downtown Beaver Dam on Front Street near City Lunch. He then worked in Columbus for Bill Gavinski in 1965 and 1966. (When Jim was married in 1966, Jerry talked him into wearing a hairpiece!) Joining the National Guard in 1967, Jerry attended basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and advanced training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as a Medic in the 3rd Red Arrow Division in Beaver Dam and the 13th Evacuation Hospital in Madison. In 1967, Jerry settled in for the long haul. He worked for Lee Winkler at Winkler’s Family Hair on South Center Street until new owner Ann Kulka bought the business in 2003, and he worked at Barber-Ann’s, now on Corporate Drive, until Thursday August 2, 2012.
As Andy Griffith put it, “You know Floyd always takes an hour or so for lunch. Says if he comes back too fast all the food goes right to his feet.” Well, I know that Jerry often cut his lunch short or skipped it altogether so he could make sure that that groom would be groomed perfectly for his special day or a dear customer who passed away would look at peace while surrounded by loving family. Jerry’s dedication never wavered, as neither sinus surgery nor two bouts with throat cancer could keep him down and out of the shop. He would endure radiation treatments in the morning and be back serving his customers at his chair that same afternoon. While Floyd was a professional barber, he seemed to have some troubles with getting the side burns even, especially on Barney. But Jerry was meticulous about making sure you “looked even” when you left his chair. In 1972, he earned second place finishes in the state convention contests in fashion cut and classic cut, qualifying him for the National Men’s Hairstyling Competition in Houston, Texas. Other merits include being awarded a ring from Roffler Hair Products and earning his manager’s license.
While Floyd had an affinity for Calvin Coolidge and his quotes, Jerry’s lies more with the Beach Boys and their lyrics. Thanks to a longtime customer friend who took him to their Summerfest concert in July, he happily sat 23 rows from the stage. Another major interest is in the sports arena, including the Brewers, Packers, and his all-time favorite, racing. In fact, it was he who introduced me to the endearing animated movie “Cars,” sparking my desire to hit the mother road someday for a nostalgic ride on Route 66, possibly to look for some red, blue and white striped poles along the way, but that’s another story. Racing has always been a huge part of his life. Although 14 years my senior, I do remember him taking my sister Jan and me to the races (after seeing the white car downtown with the announcer shouting through the bullhorn that Raceway Park was the place to be on Tuesday nights). That was in the early 1970’s, and since then, he has been a member of Geno Berndt’s pit crew, driven a Legends car at Raceway Park and attended several races where he met his favorite NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth. If you need directions to Cambridge, just ask him.
But one of his very favorite things to do is travel, and when the trip can be combined with barbershop nostalgia, it’s even better. On his way back from a Martinsville race, he stopped in Mount Airy, North Carolina where he went to Floyd’s Barbershop and was allowed to “cut” brother-in-law Allen’s hair in Floyd’s chair!
I cannot even begin to estimate the number of haircuts Jerry has done, although his figure of about a quarter of a million doesn’t seem far off the mark. I know there have been generations of men who have sat in his chair at seven different stages of their lives: baby, toddler, young boy, teen, young man, adult and senior. In fact, his brother-in-law (my husband Greg) was his last official haircut. When people discover that I am his sister, they all smile and make the same comment. “Jerry’s your brother? Oh, he’s been my barber my whole life and he’s great.” Well, I can say the same thing. “He’s been my brother my whole life and he IS great.” His customers meant so much to him, just as he means to them. Thank you, Jerry for you were just the right tonic to help keep our community looking good. Enjoy as you snip, trim, clip, and cut your way through the next chapters of your life.