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Hanging up the shears after 58 years

Popular barber retiring at 82

June 12, 2012

Menomonee Falls - Whether it was a clean shave or a simple snip, Menomonee Falls resident Roy Esselman has done it all a thousand times over.

It wasn't his talent with a blade that kept him working until the age of 82, however, it was the people.

From members of the Milwaukee Braves to actress Phyllis Diller's family or a 93-year-old to a young child, Roy has cut thousands of men's hair during the last 58 years.

Roy will hang up his shears for the last time July 3 when he completes his final day of work at the Falls Plaza Barber Shop.

"Something in the back of my mind said 'it's time,' " Roy said of his official retirement.

Learned after Army service

Roy isn't sure why he chose barbering as his profession when he got out of the Army in 1953 after serving two years in Korea in the second infantry division. With the help of the GI Bill, he decided to attend school and learn the trade. He never looked back.

After serving three years as an apprentice, taking a state exam, working under a master barber to obtain his journeyman's license before completing a final exam for master barber status, Roy became the managing barber at the Bluecrest Hotel in Milwaukee.

It was there he cut the hair of a few Milwaukee Braves including Eddie Mathews and Bob Buhl, as well as the hair of Diller's family.

"I have to give a lot of credit to my wife (Mary)," Roy said. "After 58 years, there's been a lot of disagreements, but we've been able to hang together."

Mary echoed those sentiments, despite Roy's long hours and an ebb and flow income.

"I never knew what time a meal was," Mary said. "But it's been a wonderful life and we have no regrets."

Clients have been loyal

One of Roy's oldest client's to date is a 93-year-old man. They first met in 1955 and Roy has cut the man's hair ever since. In the early 60s, Roy decided to leave the fast-developing Bluemound Road area to open Roy's Barber Shop in Germantown, where he worked for more than 40 years.

When he first set up his shop, the couple lived in Menomonee Falls. In the slowly developing area, phone calls from the neighboring villages were long distance and Roy could drive to work without seeing a single car on the road.

Things have changed since then. His former shop on Mequon and Pilgrim roads is now the Kitchen and Bath Expo. His original shears cost $6 that would cut hair for $1 a pop. Shears now cost $95 and a cut runs between $13 and $15.

For 58 years, every day and every conversation has been unique. From a man battling cancer with five months to live spurring tears between client and barber to a child braving the shears for the first time, Roy will leave his trade with endless stories and countless friendships.

Customers made it interesting

"It's all about people. There are some very interesting stories you have from people of all walks of life, and I just enjoy people," Roy said. "If you don't enjoy people you're not going to survive in this field of work."

In his early career, Roy would spend countless hours working late into the night, cutting the hair of children at an orphanage. To this day he continues to help others with his trade by traveling to the homes of senior citizens who no longer drive to give them a cut and share a story or two.

Now, Roy is wrapping up his final weeks at the Falls Plaza Barber Shop, where he comes in Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

"He's a good guy, he's a lot of fun and he likes to talk," said Mike Bourne, owner of the Falls Plaza Barber Shop. "Roy's a super nice guy, he's very social. He's a people person."

If Roy has advice for any small business owner, it is this: don't be afraid to try something new and save a little money here and there.

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