When David Fowler started cutting hair at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski was still in middle school and Elvis Presley’s iconic hairdo was serving in the Army.

Through the years, Fowler has cut the hair of Nobel Prize winners, several of Duke’s presidents and the first host of Good Morning America—David Hartman, Trinity '56—along with countless other students and faculty.

But May 31, Fowler will shutter the Duke Barber Shop’s doors for the last time after more than 55 years on the job. With Fowler's departure, the University plans to repurpose the space in the Bryan Center that currently houses the shop. The 82-year-old said he's leaving then because his licenses to operate there run out at the end of the month.

Established in 1912—when Duke was still Trinity College—the Duke Barber Shop will close, but Fowler will still be cutting hair from a shop in his home. The three other barbers in the shop will move to other jobs, said Jim Wilkerson, director of trademark licensing and stores operations. 

Fowler explained that Charles Clotfelter, Z. Smith Reynolds professor of public policy studies, notified many patrons that Fowler would be leaving Duke soon. Since then, the longtime barber has seen an outpouring of support and influx of customers who wanted to bid their goodbyes, including a group of regulars who surprised him May 10. Fowler teared up talking about leaving the shop he has called home since 1959 and the people he met there—his favorite part about Duke.

“I like the looks of the campus, it’s a beautiful place,” Fowler said. “But it’s the people. They’re the ones who make enjoyable.”

One of those people has been local customer Mark Williams, who followed Fowler from a brief three-year hiatus from Duke when he worked at a shop in Hillsborough. Fowler has cut Williams' hair for 45 years and was a part of Williams’ wedding. 

“He always asks about my bride,” Williams said. “We’ve been married 16 years, but he always calls her ‘bride.’ He always encouraged me—I introduced Melanie to him—and he was one of the first people I thought about asking to be in the wedding. He knew I had a good one and not to mess it up. It was great to have him there that day… It meant a lot, especially since my dad passed away when he was very young.”

Williams was a customer when the barber shop was located across from the “Dope Shop,” which was in West Union before closing in 1982. The shop sold everything from cigarettes to school supplies and featured a soda fountain, where Fowler said he would get a burger and fries special for $1 on Fridays. 

The Duke Barber Shop moved to its current location at the bottom of the Bryan Center in 2013, Fowler said, which limited its visibility to students. Williams added that in its previous location, the shop received more foot traffic and seemed to attract more students to get their hair cut.

Fowler will keep the shop up and running as the store’s manager until his impending license expiration for the location at the end of May. 

The 82-year-old began cutting hair when he left military service in 1947 and attended barber school in Durham. Fowler quipped that he told his wife he wanted to stay in Durham to practice cutting hair before moving back to his small hometown of Smithfield, N.C., because there were so few people to practice cutting hair on there. 

“We never went home,” Fowler said. 

    

Bre Bradham

    

Since then, Fowler welcomed the shop’s first black barber in 1969 and its first woman barber in 1972. 

In terms of diversity, the Barber Shop has not been without controversy as of late, as in April, an Instagram account with the name “@duke_barber_shop” made a homophobic comment on a post about Greek Ally Week. Kristen Brown—associate vice president of news, communication and media for Duke—then wrote in an email to The Chronicle that “the Duke Barber Shop does not now and has never had an Instagram account.” Fowler also denied that he had anything to do with the comment. 

“I guarantee you I didn’t do it, I don’t even know how to send a message of any kind,” Fowler said. “I don’t have a phone like that. I’m 82 years old.”

Upon his departure from Duke, Fowler said he will have more time to spend with his wife, whose health is currently “not the best in the world.” The great-grandfather will also be able to take better care of his 93-year-old stepfather, who lives right next door. 

“I’m not retiring. I’m going home to work, that’s for sure,” Fowler said. “I’m married, you know I’ve got to work. I’ve got a ‘honey do list’ already.” 

Although he says he isn’t technically retiring, he will be missed by many of his customers, including Dean Taylor, professor of orthopedic surgery. 

Taylor, who received his medical degree from Duke in 1985, has been getting his hair cut by Fowler since 2006, when he returned to Duke to join its faculty. Taylor called Fowler a Duke institution.

Fowler has cut the hair of former Duke presidents Richard Brodhead, Keith Brodie and Terry Sanford, in addition to head football coach David Cutcliffe and former assistant basketball coaches Chuck Daly and Hubie Brown—not to mention Robert Lefkowitz, who received the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Taylor said Fowler has seen a lot of change on campus over the years—whether that be in hairstyles or otherwise—and has adjusted for his customers accordingly. 

“He’s a steady counsel for people when they’re getting their haircut. He’s got a lot of stories if you get him talking,” Taylor said. “He has tremendous institutional memory. It’s great to have that sort of person here and it’s sad to see that institution, whether that’s Dave Fowler as an institution or the barbershop as an institution going away.”

Fowler noted that he has been moved by the number of people that came to the shop to see him since Clotfelter spread the word about his departure and organized the surprise gathering earlier this month.

“It meant a lot,” Fowler said. “Tears. There I go again.”

Bre Bradham contributed reporting.