News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 21, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years

TERRE HAUTE — People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.

“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.

The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week. Still smiling. Still bleeding Blue and White as a lifelong Sycamores fan. Still reviewing sports, politics, news and the word on the street as he “sharpens up” the guy sitting in the barber’s chair at Esquire Hairstyling. Still energized and busy.

A haircut “should take about 20 minutes. With me, it lasts a little longer,” Hochhalter said. “I like to talk a lot. I enjoy my customers.”

He’s persevered.

When another downtown barbershop laid off Hochhalter and others, he and Thomas decided to open their own place at 30 N. Sixth St., between Wabash Avenue and Indiana State University, and the duo canvassed the campus to drum up customers. When a massive fire destroyed a dozen stores and five businesses on the adjacent block on March 20, 1963, Hochhalter and Thomas forged ahead and opened their shop just a few days later. No second thoughts. “Oh, no,” said Hochhalter, who was just 22 years old then. “We were rarin’ to go.”

When Interstate 70 opened in 1967, shifting the hub of city commerce to the south side, they kept at it, downtown.

When men began wearing longer hair in the 1970s, prompting many barbers to quit, Hochhalter and Thomas got more training for those new styles. “Longer hair never hurt us,” Hochhalter said.

When Thomas left the profession in 1982 for a full-time career in county government, Hochhalter continued on.

At one time, four barbers manned the shop. Customers “lined up to get in here,” Hochhalter recalled. Nearly 150 barbers filled the ranks of the local barbers union, including 100 in the downtown district, he said. They met monthly, kept similar prices and took Thursdays off. “Downtown was booming,” Hochhalter said.

For the past two decades, he’s worked on his own, by appointment. The industry has changed through the popularity of unisex salons, reducing the number of traditional barbershops catering to the guys. “It’s just a lost art,” Hochhalter said. “There are hardly any barbers around any more.”

His appointment book stays full, though. Through the years, his clientele has included politicians, business leaders, people working downtown, sons whose dads were also customers, and local college administrators, professors, students, coaches and athletes, among others. In one stretch, three of his regular customers were future billionaires. Hochhalter cut the hair of future Dodgers and Yankees pitching star Tommy John, then a high-schooler. “He wore a flat-top back in those days,” Hochhalter said. Five of the past six ISU presidents — including current president Dan Bradley — have sat in Hochhalter’s chair, dating back to Raleigh Holmstedt.

“Raleigh used to come in here, smoking his pipe and joking around,” Hochhalter recalled. A barber on the shop’s staff was once carrying on and making wisecracks about ISU and didn’t realize the guy in the chair was Holmstedt. Hochhalter just laughed at the memory.

Today, Hochhalter has regulars as old as 95, still dropping by for a weekly trim. He’s heard, and shared, lots of stories. “I wish I could remember everything I’ve known,” he said, chuckling.

Last Wednesday, with jazz music quietly emanating from a speaker on the wall, autographed sports memorabilia covering another wall, and bits of March sunlight flickering through the shop window, customer Rich Kjonaas leafed through a magazine, awaiting his turn. Kjonaas was a regular back in the 1980s and resumed that routine about four years ago. “I come here as much for the advice as the haircut,” he said, drawing a grin from his barber. A few minutes earlier, Hochhalter wrapped up Brian Conley’s haircut by running a massage machine across his neck. Conley, a real estate executive, started coming to the shop in 1976.

Hochhalter, who took his first barbering job 54 years ago, hopes to be handling their appointments for years to come.

“I feel like I’ve got another 54 years to go,” he said. “I know that won’t happen, but I feel like I could.”

He’s one of those special people who discovered his life’s ambition early and lived it out. Growing up in Montezuma, Hochhalter’s dad took him to barbershops in nearby Clinton for weekly haircuts. “I just watched the barbers and saw they had a good time,” he said. “I was about 14 or 15 years old, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be.”

He’s 72 now. His career, along side that of his wife, Alyce — a retired Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College prof — helped raise their son and daughter. Today, he barbers because he likes the work, not because he must. Though old-school barbershops have experienced a nostalgic resurgence in some trendy locales in large cities, such as the Art of Shaving at Keystone Crossing near Indianapolis, Hochhalter figures he represents the last of traditional barbering’s heyday era.

Customers keep walking into his shop near the corner of Sixth and Cherry streets, though. And, he’ll keep sharpening them up “till my legs give out.”

The work still makes him smile, and still holds its place among his passions, behind his family and sports. Throughout his family life, he’s been surrounded by college graduates. Hochhalter took a slightly different path, doing his schooling at Indiana Barbers College, and he’s glad he did.

“It’s just me. I chose to be a barber, and I’m as happy as can be,” he said. “There’s not many people as happy as me.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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