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Pair of barbers in their 80′s continue to enjoy cutting hair

March 4, 2019
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With pictures of Elvis donning the walls, Ken VanDe Wettering, 85, gives a haircut to Tim Gibson of Oshkosh at Greasy Fingers barbershop Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Appleton, Wis. (Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent via AP)

APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — Greasy Fingers is full of callbacks to bygone eras.

The small barbershop, spa and salon are decorated with photos and mementos, mostly from the 1950s. There’s an Elvis clock, complete with dangling dancing legs, an old-timey cash register and an illuminated barber’s pole. Even the use of the word barbershop might be a reminder of past generations — high and tight men’s cuts, crisp parts, a dab or two of pomade.

The building itself is a throwback in its own right. It was first home to a drive-in diner that opened in 1956. It’s been a barbershop in more recent times, including one run by the late Harry Coenen for just shy of 20 years.

Then there’s Ken Van De Wettering and Don Klemp. Sporting their white silk barber jackets and wielding the now seldom-seen barber combs, the octogenarian duo are American classics.

“I liked barbering so I went into that and I was told — and this is true — if I didn’t want to stay in it it’d be OK, but if I was trained in it I could do it the rest of my life,” Klemp, who recently turned 80, told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “So I took up something I could do the rest of my life.”

The work done by Klemp and his 86-year-old friend Van De Wettering now is seen by most as retro and it’s even more apparent now in their new surroundings. After having cut hair for decades in shops where both the employees and the customers were predominantly men, since October they’ve been mingling in a more modern salon setting.

Greasy Fingers was opened in late 2017 by Chrissy Braun, and its customer base draws from all generations and, of course, the female half of the population. For Klemp and Van De Wettering, it’s a fun change of pace.

“I’d say the girls are wonderful to be with,” Van De Wettering said. “They’re nice, polite, they’re fun to be with. You watch them cut hair, they cut differently than I do. But they get the job done.”

Both men had previously worked at the business when it was Harry Coenen’s Barber Shop. Klemp was there about six years and Van De Wettering more than a decade.

That business closed in August 2017 after the death of Coenen, who had cut hair for more than 60 years and ran shops in Appleton since 1967. Braun moved in, gave the place a makeover and opened a few months later.

As the name suggests, Greasy Fingers calls back to the 1950s and the pomade-loving “greasers” of that era. You’re likely to hear ’50s tunes playing and Elvis can be spotted in at least a dozen places around the quaint single-room shop. (Fun fact: Presley would be 84 years old today — two years younger than Van De Wettering.)

After Coenen’s closed, the two barbers moved to another shop in town. A few months later, that business packed up and went north to Green Bay and they were again on the lookout for a new place to cut hair. Braun was happy to bring them back for reasons that are simple: She likes them.

“They’re cute,” she said. “They’re good people.”

Klemp and Van De Wettering aren’t working a full-time schedule like in their younger days. They each work a morning two days a week. On work days, they’re up before the sun, usually starting at 6:30 a.m. to begin issuing “gentlemen’s haircuts.”

“It’s worked out good,” Klemp said. “I enjoy working with these gals.”

The two men first met at barbering school in Green Bay back when the King was tearing up the charts. Although Van De Wettering is a few years older, he had to wait a bit to start learning the trade.

“The Korean War just ended,” he said. “So all the veterans had priority over me. So I didn’t get to school for a few more years. I said, ‘I’ll be here, you just call.’”

In their recent moves from barber shop to barber shop, they’ve stuck together because they can combine to work four days a week. Klemp said he doesn’t plan on cutting hair forever and he’s noticed he gets a little more tired as each year passes — so “sooner or later I’ll say that’s going to be enough.”

When it comes to loyalty, it’s hard to find a better example than the clientele of these two. Both said they have men who’ve been coming to them for decades. Both also have bounced around from place to place over the years, and they both also ran their own businesses for some time. Van De Wettering, the son of a barber, had Ken’s Barber Shop for about 30 years. Klemp was at the helm of Modern Barber Shop in Neenah for seven years or so.

“All my customers are friends of mine. They’ve become friends,” Klemp said. “I’ve cut their hair for many, many years. That’s the reason I came back here. When you’re friends, you want to see your friends and they want you back. I’d say 90 percent of our customers — Ken’s and mine — are previous customers of ours.”

Van De Wettering said he has one regular customer whose flat-top he’s been crafting since 1954. Another of his regulars, who started during the Harry Coenen era, will turn 101 years old in April.

“Those are the things that make the trade what it is,” Van De Wettering said. “Trust in each other. (We’re) almost like old brothers. There ain’t too many of us old guys left.”

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Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com

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