Springfield barber retires after memorable career

His grades were good enough.

But when Tom Schilling graduated from Northeastern High School in 1964 he knew one important thing: He did not want to go to college.

He did, however, have an idea.

During the 11 years his family lived on a farm outside South Vienna and the remainder of his youth when they lived in town, he had noticed that barbers made a good living, including a couple of friends.

So by the time he turned 18, Schilling was halfway through Andrews Barber College in Columbus, a career choice that seemed pretty solid in May of 1965, when Don Boggs, who had a shop across the square from the Madison County Courthouse in London, stopped by the college and hired him a month before graduation.

But nine months into Schilling’s apprenticeship, with the Vietnam War escalating, Uncle Sam decided he needed Schilling’s services more than Boggs did.

Soon after Schilling opened his draft notice, he knew a second important thing: If he spent two years in the Army, he’d forget much of what he learned in barber college and would have to start over.

So after a stop at the Navy Recruiter’s office, which involved a move toward the exit when the recruiter said there were only four-year enlistments, Schilling took a copy of his barber’s certificate with him to Navy boot camp to begin a three-year hitch as a Ship’s Serviceman barber.

When he was assigned USS Edson after training at the Great Lakes Naval Station, the destroyer was in dry dock at Hunters Point near San Francisco. So it was some months before Schilling performed his first oceanic haircuts.

During that break-in time, the small corner sink in the closet-size room where he barbered was as crucial to his routine as his scissors and comb. But, to the great relief of Schilling and the rest of the Edson’s crew, he won his brief battle with seasickness, and he and his stomach settled into the shipboard routine.

The Edson patrolled the Vietnam coast, providing fire support to U.S. troops fighting inland. The call to General Quarters, which preceded the firing, often sent sailors with half-finished haircuts scrambling across deck, with Schilling close behind.

On his first seven-month tour, he was a first loader on a three-inch gun mount. On the second, he was a gun control operator who pivoted and aimed the weapon until it the technology of the time locked it in place.

While on leave, Schilling still kept an eye on his future, working once at Boggs’ shop and as a relief barber for two young hair cutters at Springfield’s Toops’ Barber Shop when they went off for National Guard duty.

The day after he arrived home for good in April of 1969, he swung by the shop his barber college classmate Leonard Maxwell had just open near the railroad tracks that cross East High Street not far from the old Community Hospital.

Although it may have been a fishing expedition, he was nonetheless surprised when “Max” asked if he had his barber tools with him. Two weeks later, Schilling carried a few new waiting chairs into the office, bought a window air conditioner and was elevated to the status of partner.

When Max had to relocate for family reasons, Schilling paid $500 to buy the business and immediately faced another problem.

Despite being a shop owner, he was not yet a master barber and so had to pay an old barber with a master’s license $1 an hour to watch him cut his customers’ hair until his apprenticeship was done.

Life threw him another curve when the landlady sold the property. With plans to marry Carol Webb, Schilling looked around and bought a house that sat near the curve on High Street just west of Community Hospital that had been converted into a carryout.

After buying it for $15,000 and converting it into a shop and home, the Vietnam-era veteran then had to deal with the sea change caused by “The British Invasion.”

The popularity of the Beatles and other music groups from across the pond made the “mop top” popular and changed the nation’s “above the ears” culture so profoundly that it spawned a Broadway musical hit “Hair.”

Like other barbers, Schilling went to workshop after workshop to learn how to cut the new styles. A few years later, though, he caught a break when another pop culture phenomenon brought more business his way.

A female cousin enamored of the hairstyle Farah Fawcett sported on the TV hit “Charley’s Angels” asked Schilling to replicate it for her. He did it well enough that, for a time, junior high and high school girls spent time in chairs that had been used exclusively by men.

On the personality end of things, Schilling was a natural barber.

His never-met-a-stranger attitude and love of good-natured banter combined to create a kind of epoxy bond with his customers, some of whom, upon Shilling’s recent retirement, are looking for a new one for the first time in 40-plus years.

There was no animosity expressed or taken the day of our interview when he said we wouldn’t be talking if his back hadn’t told him it was time to hang up his barber tools.

And at 69, Schilling still enjoys the work.

He likes telling the story about the day he declared a finished scalp “The Miracle on High Street,” a name now posted atop his shop’s sign and on his business cards and pens.

He feels badly about leaving customers who long since have become friends.

Two favorites were the former Major Leaguer Harvey Haddix and J. Frederick “Doc” Doyle, enough of a character that, with a waiting room full of people at his medical practice, he would take time to discuss how the corn was growing around South Vienna.

Either one of them would “light up the shop,” he said.

But as much as Schilling liked goading Doc Doyle into arguments with “Doc” Beam, whose office was next door to the shop, he was wise enough to separate customers who might not enjoy one another’s company.

There was no official day set aside for those who swore like sailors, but the former Navy man was careful not to schedule the salty-tongued in close proximity with the preacher wanting a trim in time for Sunday’s service.

The same back problem that’s ending Schilling’s career is keeping him from the golf course and from tending his yard, which he liked to manicure to a standard of neatness he always strove for in his shop – and maintains in his personal appearance.

At career’s end, he has earned the right to be slightly grumpy about today’s production-line shops and is quick to mention the disastrous ‘dos’ he’s had to repair after returning from vacation.

He mentions his son, Mike, who coaches football and golf at Springfield High School, and talks about playing point rum in the afternoons at Springfield’s Elks Lodge, where he’s a former exalted ruler.

As for the shop? It’s up for sale now, and the $15,000 he spent on it looks like a steal, not only because of the longevity of his business but because of the seven years his family stayed in the living quarters and the rental income that started coming in once they moved out.

Although the loss of his wife Carol in 2010 was a blow, Schilling is thankful for their 41 years together.

He’s also thankful for the half a century he’s enjoyed getting up in the mornings to go to work. And for that, he deeply appreciative of his customer/friends not only for the money they spent with him, but for the time.

Because 52 years after graduating from Northeastern High School, Schilling knows one other important thing: “I have what I have because of them.”

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