A longtime barber is putting down the clippers after nearly six decades in the industry.
Jeff Porter, 76, is retiring from Gene’s Barbershop this week after barbering for 57 years. Porter, who also worked fulltime for the Kokomo Fire Department for 24-and-a-half years, said the mix of careers provided a good and fulfilling life.
“It’s been good. I never thought about doing it that long when I started, and if this is all I’ve done, I might not have lasted this long either,” Porter said. “I had a break with the fire department in there because I’m working 56 hours a week and in the barbershop usually two to three days. So it all worked out OK. I liked both careers. I was fortunate, really.”
Barbering was Porter’s first dream job. As a teenager, he would get his hair cut by a barber named Lynn Sines who worked in Galveston, and it was Sines who inspired Porter to pursue the profession. Porter said he was taken by Sines’ personality, his neat appearance, and that he was an overall “impressive guy.” He wanted to be like him.
After graduating from high school in 1962, Porter went to an international barber school in Indianapolis, a one-year program. Upon graduating, he wanted to stick around a town south of Indianapolis, Waverly, because he’d met a girl in barbering school who he really liked from that area.
However, he couldn’t seem to make money there, so he returned to Kokomo. He got his first barbering job in the City of Firsts at Bon Air Barbershop, located on the corner of Apperson Way and Gano Street, where he worked for Kenny Beals. Beals also was known for the work he did with the Kokomo Rescue Mission, where he served as director from 1975 to 1988.
Porter worked for him fulltime until he joined the Kokomo Fire Department in November 1965, and then he moved to barbering on his off days.
The industry shifted in 1974, Porter said, when the long hair fad took over. During that time, work in the barbershops slowed down, as men opted to get their long locks trimmed at beauty salons.
“In ’74, long hair was the thing, and guys loved to get haircuts. And when they did, they went to a beauty shop,” Porter said.
With little work, Porter went to work at Sears on a delivery truck. Porter said the company used firemen for the job. Porter stayed on there part-time until 1980. With the long hair fad generally over and his Mondays free, he went back to work cutting hair, this time at Gene’s Barbershop. He worked there until 1989 when he went out on his own. That year, he reopened Bon Air Barbershop that had since closed and worked there as the owner for about a year until he retired from the fire department in 1990.
He wasn’t ready to call it quits altogether though. When he retired from the fire department, he had one child going to college at IU Kokomo to become a teacher and one child graduating from high school and going on to college.
“I couldn’t just think about stopping working at that age,” he said.
However, he was 64, drawing Social Security, and was limited on how much money he could make, so owning his owner barbershop then was out of the question.
He left Bon Air Barbershop to work at Templin’s Barbershop on North Phillips Street part-time where he just paid chair rent and had no overhead. He stayed there until 10 years ago when he decided he wanted to get back to working on the north side of Kokomo and returned to Gene’s Barbershop.
“I always worked so much in the north end, and I just wanted to come back to the north end to work,” Porter said.
He spent the last decade in that spot, and he said his customers have been phenomenal over the years, following him to the different barbershops he’s work at.
When asked what it takes to make a good barber, Porter believed it’s one part personality, one part trying to give the customer what he asks for. The barber said the first time or two with a new customer, it’s important to figure out exactly what the customer wants and is expecting.
He said he never wanted to take off too much hair — though he remembered one time he failed at that.
“I can think of one guy years ago. We got to talking, and his hair went down over his ears. When I got done, he didn’t have none over his ears,” Porter said, laughing. “He still had a nice haircut, but it wasn’t what he wanted. I think it’s important to try to learn what a person wants and do your best to please them.”
Having so many longtime customers, Porter said most of the time cutting hair is muscle memory. He knows exactly what kind of haircut his regulars want.
Now, with his time barbering coming to a close, Porter said he’s going to miss the relationships he’s built with so many loyal customers over the decades.
“I’m going to miss the people. Doing it this long, I made a lot of friends with families. I met multiple generations of families by doing it this long, and I will miss the contact with people,” Porter said. “I just wish I had a way to say thanks to all of them.”