With more than four decades as a faculty member and as one of two people at Duke to win a Nobel Prize, Robert Lefkowitz is a living piece of this institution’s history.
So, it makes sense that once a month, he visits another institution to get his hair cut.
Tracing its roots back to 1912, when then-Trinity College employed its first barbers, the Duke Barber Shop has been one of the few constants on an ever-evolving campus, offering haircuts to men and women.
Since arriving at the Duke University School of Medicine in 1973, Lefkowitz has been a loyal customer and fan of longtime barber Dave Fowler.
“What, are you kidding?” Lefkowitz said when asked what keeps him coming back. “That guy over there, he’s the best. That hour in that chair, it’s one of the best hours of my month.”
Fowler started cutting hair at the Duke Barber Shop in 1959, when it was located in what is now the Brodhead Center. These days, you can find the shop on the bottom floor of the Bryan Center.
Working alongside Fowler is Johnsie Sowder, who’s been at the shop for 27 years, and cousins Shane Stansbury and Brad Geercken, who have been at the shop a few years.
During a recent Friday, Working@Duke spent a day at the Duke Barber Shop to see what life is like at this campus institution that is part of Duke University Stores.
The Duke Barber Shop’s posted hours are 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., but for longtime customers, Fowler will bend the rules. One such customer is Bill Racine, who slid into Fowler’s chair around 8 a.m.
“It’s usually doctors or people that live off campus and want to beat the parking so they can get in and get out,” Fowler said of his early guests.
With Frank Sinatra music playing in the background, Racine and Fowler discuss mutual friends who’ve brought children and grandchildren through the barber shop and former Duke President Richard H. Brodhead, who was once a Duke Barber Shop regular.
Racine is a retired businessman from Chicago. When asked what prompted him to move to Durham, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“I knew Dave was cutting hair here,” cracked Racine.
After Racine is done, Biochemistry Professor Terry Oas sits down for his monthly 8:30 a.m. appointment with Fowler.
“Dave has a view of Duke that most people don’t have,” Oas said. “He cuts the hair of people from every layer of Duke, from incoming freshmen to vice presidents.”
Oas has been on the Duke faculty for 27 years. He admits that he didn’t start coming to Fowler until he’d been at Duke for some time.
“Haircuts were always a pain for me, I’d go months without getting a haircut,” Oas said. “When I first got my haircut by Dave, I think I had a full beard. Isn’t that right, Dave?”
“I believe so,” he said.
But if anyone can get away with looking a little shaggy, it’s a biochemistry professor.
“Yeah, it fits the stereotype,” Oas said.
“But he has a wife,” Fowler said. “Her opinion counts.”
Piece of the past
Fowler whips a black barbers’ cape off of a nearby chair to reveal a phone book. Used to give smaller customers a boost, it’s also a relic.
“That might be one of the last phonebooks at Duke,” Fowler said.
The directory is from 2009, the final year campus phone directories were printed.
“Once in while I can find a phone number in there, too,” Fowler said.
Hoops and haircuts
While the barber shop is in the heart of Duke’s campus, it still represents one small front in the conflict between eternal basketball rivals Duke and North Carolina.
Barber Brad Geercken is a die-hard Duke fan while cousin and colleague Shane Stansbury grew up cheering for North Carolina. This leads to Stansbury catching some playful grief from his co-workers, including a cardboard cutout of the Blue Devil mascot that Fowler hung near his chair.
“From time to time, you’ve got to remind him where you are,” Geercken said.
Co-workers said that Stansbury takes it all in stride. In fact, Stansbury held his tongue when North Carolina defeated Duke in the first men’s basketball meeting of the season.
“Shane doesn’t say much unless you really step on his toes,” Fowler said. “He doesn’t stir the pot.”
Late in the day
As the day wears on, the music shifts from big band tunes to Waylon Jennings and afternoon sun shoots through a nearby glass door and into the shop.
After a flurry of students walked in for haircuts toward the middle of the day, the end of the day sees only a trickle of customers.
By now, the rhythm of days like this is very familiar to Fowler, who’s been at Duke for nearly six decades.
Fowler recalls his early days at Duke, when it was rare to see a customer who came from anywhere other than the Carolinas or Virginia. Now, he cuts the hair of students who come from around the world.
When he started, Duke West Campus was less than 30 years old.
“I used to tell people that, in those days, you could walk out in front of the chapel, look both ways, and you’ve seen Duke,” Fowler said. “Now, even if you had a helicopter and went high up in the air, you still couldn’t see Duke. It’s scattered all over the state.”
Terry Sanford, a former Duke president, North Carolina governor and United States senator, was one of Fowler’s regulars. Fowler remembers making it a point to read the newspaper whenever Sanford was scheduled to come in so he’d know what to say when the conversation inevitably veered toward current events.
With his final customers finishing up, Fowler looks a fresh as he did when he arrived in the morning. His short, white hair is unruffled and his coat is spotless.
The white, sleeveless coat is one of two that were given to him as a gift several years ago from colleagues with Duke Stores. On the left side of his chest, in blue gothic script, it reads “The Duke of Barbers.”
“It came out of thin air,” Fowler said of the nickname. “I don’t know what air it came from, but I’ll take it.”