Around 4 p.m. or so this Saturday, Steve Swecker will walk out of the OK Barber Shop in Pulaski for the last time and enter the slower paced world of retirement.
Finally, after a 47-year career as a barber, Swecker will have time to do some things he’s found himself wanting to do, but never had the time for.
“I’ll be able to do a few things without having to be back to work really quick,” Swecker said this week. “Seems all my life, I’d go by something and say, ‘I’d like to stop and see them or do this.’ But I couldn’t do it for having to be at the shop a certain amount of time. That’s going to be the best part [of retirement]. Being able to do a few things you want to do, that you don’t have to do.”
Through his career, Swecker has rarely been gone from his spot behind his barber chair – an antique he reconditioned after years of use by his father, Charlie who had a long career as a barber at the old Pulaski Barber Shop. His dad, Swecker noted, started his career with the chair. Appropriately, Swecker is ending his with the same chair.
Swecker said he has taken his wife, Judy to Florida to visit family for a week during each of the past two years.
“That made three weeks I’ve taken off in 47 years,” Swecker said.
He’s taken short breaks – a day or two or even three at a time – through the years, but week-long vacations have been extremely rare. Short trips to take his children somewhere as they grew up, and a couple cruises squeezed in here and there were about the only times he’s been away from his shop for any length of time during the nearly five decades he’s worked cutting hair in Pulaski.
Bryan Fowler, now the owner of OK Barber Shop, joked that customers who came in to find Swecker gone would make a big deal out of the fact he was off work.
“People will come in and want their pictures made with the empty chair because they’ve never seen him gone,” Fowler said.
Swecker has worked nearly all his life, starting out as a shoe shine boy when he was eight years old in the Pulaski Barber Shop.
“The shop was located in the Leftwich Building on Commerce Street,” Swecker recalled. “All those buildings were torn down in 1967. John Cox, who owned Cox’s Grill, built Daddy a new shop around the corner facing the old Kroger store. I shined shoes there a few months, then I started working at the station.”
Swecker’s brother-in-law owned the Pure Oil station on Washington Avenue that sat across the street from the old Max’s Bakery.
“I worked there for 2 ½ years then City Cabs took it over, and I worked for them for a while before going to Kroger,” Swecker recalled. He stayed at Kroger until he finished high school. From there he went to Richmond for barber school.
At school, Swecker studied under the same instructor as his father, a fellow named Admiral Dewey Seymour.
“He found out who I was,” Swecker said. “He was from Wise County originally, and he liked us mountain boys. He took me to NASCAR races and on my day off, he knew I didn’t have any money or anything and that I needed to get out of school. So he’d give me extra credit. I’d work on broken barber chairs and clean the barber school – whatever. I got out of school about two months early.”
Following school, Swecker’s father retired and Steve bought his shop. It was then he began working with fellow barber, Asa Burchett.
“Asa worked with me about a year or so, then he went somewhere else for a while,” Swecker remembered. “Later, I think it was in 1973 or ’74, he went to OK Barber Shop. In 1975, he bought the shop from Johnny Bryant. One day Asa came over and asked about us combining the two shops. After about six months I did that, and we worked together for 27 years.”
At that time, OK Barber Shop was located across from the Pulaski Post Office in the Dalton Building.
Through all these years, Swecker has started his workdays early – 5 a.m. Monday – Friday, and at 4 a.m. on Saturdays. Even as early as those starting times, Swecker said he has days when customers are waiting in their cars for him to arrive.
It was noted last week when he was honored by both the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors and Pulaski Town Council, that Swecker had given an estimated 300,000 haircuts during his career.
“That was an estimate, it’s probably been quite a bit more than that,” Swecker said.
Days are different, Swecker said. “If you’re covered up and you don’t stop, and have a bunch of easy haircuts, you might do 50 on a heavy day. When I started I did maybe 15 a day and I thought that was a great day. That was the first year or so. After I built up the business and it picked up, I might do 15 a day on Monday and Tuesday, but maybe do three times that many on Fridays and Saturdays.”
During his career, he’s seen every trendy hair style you can imagine, including those early days when long hair on men was all the rage.
“When I started it was exactly when the long hair started and business was awful,” Swecker said. “It just killed business. People would bring in their kids, and the kids wanted their hair left long, but parents would make you cut it off. The kids got mad at you. Then, after a year or so, the kids’ hair got long and their dads’ hair was even longer.”
Despite the time that’s passed and all the different trends, Swecker is always able to remember how a customer’s hair is supposed to be cut.
“It’s unbelievable,” remarked Fowler on how Swecker can remember how to cut his customers’ hair – even if they haven’t been in the shop for a while.
“He’s got the sharpest mind I’ve ever seen,” said Fowler.
“I may not remember nothing else, but if I’ve cut your hair a couple times before, I can tell you how to cut it,” Swecker said.
As retirement looms, Swecker plans to use his free time to catch up on things needing done at his home, and spending more time with his wife, who is battling Parkinson’s.
“That’s the main thing,” he said. “I’ll cut a little hair at home here and there if I have time, and I’ll work some on my cars.” Swecker is the proud owner of several antique cars.
His fondness for old cars started as a teenager while working at his brother-in-law’s station.
“He’d bring in some old, low-mileage cars from Ohio where he used to live and we’d work on them. I’d clean them and got to where I liked them. I bought my first one when I was 16,” he recalled.
His first car was a 1953 Plymouth.
“I bought that from Eva Vaughn. She was a teacher and principal at Jefferson School for many years,” Swecker said. “I bought it from her when she was in her 80’s. She lived in an apartment building across from the Methodist church and the car was always sitting out front, and I had seen it for a long time. I knew she wanted to sell it because she’d bring it into the station.”
Swecker said she wanted $300 for the car, and he worked for two years saving up the money.
Finally one day he went to look at the car.
“I had only saved up $200, and she asked me if I wanted the car for $300. I said I was sorry, I couldn’t buy it. She asked, ‘Why?’ I told her I didn’t have but $200. She said, ‘Promise me you’ll take good care of it and I’ll give it to you for $200.’ She sold it to me and I did take good care of it,” Swecker said, adding that – before he was finished – he probably “had $2,500 in that car.”
“I did a lot of things to it I didn’t need to do, but I had the nicest ’53 Plymouth in Richmond,” Swecker said smiling.
Swecker also had the distinction of owning the very first American Motor Co. Gremlin in Pulaski.
“When I started cutting hair, I had Daddy co-sign for me and I bought a brand new 1971 Gremlin,” Swecker said. “I had the only one around here. I parked it near the shop or across the street facing Kroger. People would come by and look at it because it had that back that was chopped off. I’d cut people’s hair and they’d say, ‘That’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen.’ I’d tell them that, yeah, I know it is, but I kind of like it. Their eyes would get big and they’d say, ‘Is that yours?’ I had a lot of fun with that thing.
Retirement will also afford more time for another of Swecker’s loves – that of gospel singing.
A member of Max Meadows Methodist Church, Swecker has been singing in churches and other gatherings as a member of the Gateway Quartet since 1980.
“We just started up again,” Swecker said. “Our tenor, Herbie French, passed away and we didn’t do anything for 2 ½ years. But we picked up Gary O’Dell in late summer and we’ve started practicing and been singing again. It’s been great.”
To Swecker, however, one thing about retirement that won’t be great will be missing his customers.
“What I’ll miss most is the people,” Swecker said, getting a bit emotional. “Lord, I’ve got so many friends. Some of them have been in here today. They couldn’t believe I am retiring. They were so nice. People have been good. I won’t miss the early mornings or the long hours. But I will miss talking with the people. I’ve heard everything in the world in this shop. Some I could repeat, a lot I couldn’t. You hear so many things – so many tales and a lot of funny stories.”
His customers and friends will miss him too.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot