Waunakee barber Bernie Cleary has announced his retirement from the workforce, after more than 60 years of cutting hair. He hung up his clippers for the final time last month.
It would mark the end of an era in the village where Cleary has cut hair for the past five decades.
The barber said what has made Waunakee such a unique place for him is not the name but all the people who call it home. He said he will never forget their faces, nor the fads they took part in.
“We definitely went through some phases,” Cleary said. “We went from short hair to long hair, back to short hair, from colored hair to no hair. It hasn’t just done a 180; it’s done a 360. There was a time when men wanted to see who could get it the longest. Now everyone keeps it short.”
Although he has lived and worked in Waunakee for the better part of a century, Cleary grew up on a farm in Blanchardville – a small town in the southern part of the state.
Adolescence would shape his decision to leave farming and enter the barber trade.
“I wasted about 12 years of formal education in the space program,” Cleary said. “I just kind of took up space, and never studied hard. So I didn’t have a lot of options by the time I graduated. My dad didn’t want to make the farm a bigger operation, so I decided to do something else.”
The first time he picked up a set of trimmers was in barber school, he said, in the spring of 1958. He had been awaiting the opportunity since high-school graduation.
“It took two years on the waiting list to get in,” Cleary said. “And it was in Peoria, about 160 to 180 miles away from my hometown, so I was gone for the full nine months. But by the time that I finished barber school, I was pretty much an expert.”
He said the cost of a haircut was less than $2 at the time.
Upon leaving the institution, Cleary put his knowledge to the test at a barber shop in Montello. He could still remember the wary look on people’s faces when he grabbed the scissors, he said.
“You’re not an overnight success,” Cleary said. “It takes a while. Anytime you’re new to a city, like I was, you have to gain the trust of your clients. But eventually, people learned to trust me with the clippers.”
He barbered in the city until 1961, when he learned that he had been drafted into military service. Cleary had no choice but to set down the trimmers and pack his bags for basic.
He would spend the next two years serving in the United States Army.
“It was the first job that I ever got without applying for it,” Cleary said. “And when I came back in ’63, there had been quite a change with my former employer. But there was a job opportunity in Sun Prairie, so I came down and applied for it.”
Cleary got the job and, still fresh out of the military, worked his way up the ranks.
“I became a partner in the shop,” Cleary said. “But I knew I’d be paying rent forever, because we were part of a building. So I thought it would be better to buy a place, get it paid for and then not have to pay rent for the next 40 or 50 years.”
Cleary’s search for the right location brought him to Waunakee in the mid-60s.
He found a suitable spot on Main Street and, in 1966, opened up shop as “Bernie the Barber.” The building would serve as the home of his business for the next 43 years.
During that time, Cleary said, he cut hair for five generations of village residents.
“I’ve had quite the range of clientele,” Cleary said. “I’ve cut the hair of kids, and congressmen. One of my patrons even became the future Secretary of Defense. But the most important person’s hair I ever cut was my father’s. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
He also donated his time and expertise to helping those in need. The barber would regularly cut hair, free-of-charge, for hospital patients and residents of assisted-living facilities.
“I’ve cut hair in nursing homes and hospitals,” Cleary said, “and the homes of people who were recuperating. I’ve cut hair for people in prison as well. Some of those jobs you’re paid for, and some you aren’t. But the money’s not what it’s about.”
Cleary continued to volunteer throughout the community on a regular basis.
However, he sold the barbershop on Main Street approximately 10 years ago. He said the decision was difficult, yet the right financial move for him and his family.
“I was offered a good price for it,” Cleary said. “I wasn’t really ready to sell, because I was only 70 at the time. But I worried that it might not be as easy to sell four or five years down the road. And that’s why I ended up selling.”
For the remainder of his time in business, Cleary rented a chair at Jansen’s Salon in Waunakee.
“It was probably the best decision I ever made,” Cleary said. “These last years have been some of the most enjoyable of my career. I couldn’t have asked to work with better people, or anyone who was more professional. It’s been phenomenal.”
Cleary cut his final haircut earlier this month, before hanging up the scissors for good. He said he now plans to enjoy retirement, and let others do the trimming.
He might even grow out his hair…or whatever’s left of it, he says.