On July 1, 1969, Don Spease was the first customer to get his hair cut at Roberts Barber Shop in Luverne.
On May 18, 2012 (more than 40 years and roughly 400 appointments later), Spease had his last haircut by Marlyn Roberts, who is now officially retired.
Spease and dozens of other local clients are now seeking appointments with the only other “real” barber in town, Chuck Tweet, who is also making plans to retire.
“Old-fashioned barbers are a thing of the past,” Roberts commented as the electric clippers went to work on Spease’s head.
Spease tried to explain why he always preferred Roberts Barber Shop.
“I like the way he cuts my hair; my sideburns are always level — one side isn’t higher than the other,” he said. “He always gave good crew cuts — back when I had hair, and he cut my boys’ hair, too.”
Roberts said barbers, versus hairstylists, tend to be bolder with the clippers.
“Seems like the salons never get close enough up the sides; they always leave a little too much,” he said.
“It’s like one of my customers used to say, ‘Just hum ’er up the sides.’”
Some doors open when others are closed
Roberts grew up in Luverne, son of Francis and Leona, and graduated from Luverne High School in 1963.
He graduated from Lee’s Barber School in St. Paul the following year and did his apprentice work in St. James, where he eventually worked full-time.
In May of 1967, he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam.
By the time he got out, his job was no longer there, but as it turns out, his military service opened new doors for his barber’s career.
As an afterthought, Roberts took his barber’s kit with him to Vietnam.
When infantry conditions allowed, he cut hair for whoever needed it. “I got out of a lot of details, like filling sand bags, because I was cutting hair.”
One day the First Sergeant wandered through while Roberts was cutting hair, and he sat down for a haircut.
“Turns out he’s from Little Falls, Minnesota,” Roberts said.
Not long after that, the First Sergeant’s helicopter came to retrieve Roberts from a mortar platoon out in “the booneys.”
“I thought, ‘What’s he doing out here?’ and then I heard, ‘Roberts, First Sergeant wants to see you.’ And he told me, ‘Grab your stuff. I got you transferred to headquarters company. You’re going to cut hair.’”
From then on, Roberts said he spent his final six months of service cutting hair.
“They’d send me out to these artillery bases and leave me there for three or four days,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be gone for months at a time, hanging out with these guys cutting hair.”
He said his wife, Karen, would send him barber supplies as he needed them, and in most places there wasn’t electricity, so he mainly used his hand clippers.
He was discharged late in 1969, and with no job to return to in St. James, he and Karen came home to Luverne.
“I just came back and set up shop,” Roberts recalls matter-of-factly. “There was already a half dozen barbers in town. I didn’t know how it was going to work out.”
Started in the basement
of the Manitou
His shop was in the basement of the Manitou Hotel, where he built up a loyal clientele for the next 16 1/2 years.
After that he moved downtown to his current location, which, as of Friday, is his previous barber shop.
Roberts said he enjoyed cutting hair, but mostly he enjoyed spending time with his customers.
“We told a lot of hunting and fishing stories,” said Roberts, who is an avid sportsman. “The stories were told and retold, and they kept getting better every time. … The fish got a little bigger and the horns got a little longer every time.”
He said many of his customers let him in on their personal lives. “They told stories about things that happened at home — a lot of things I wouldn’t have told anyone,” Roberts said.
“I was just like Ann Landers.”
Counting his time in St. James, Roberts has been a barber for 47 years. He said he’s now happy to close the book on that chapter of his life and move on to the next one.
At 66 years old, he’s heeding the advice of his mother, who spent a good share of her final years debilitated by a back injury.
“She always told me, ‘Enjoy yourself while you can.’ And I think about that a lot,” Roberts said.
By the time this issue goes to press, Roberts, his wife and their daughter’s family will be on their way to the airport for a month-long trip to New Zealand.
“May the adventures never end,” he said.