It might be easy to assume that a former Senator, governor, U.S. presidential candidate and university president doesn't have much in common with his barber. But then again Terry Sanford wasn't your average politician, and David Fowler isn't your typical barber.
"He was just nothin' more than an old country boy," Fowler reminisced—in his drawn-out voice so emblematic of small-town North Carolina—about his interactions with Sanford. "He liked to fish, he liked to hunt. We understood each other—he knew where I came from, and I knew where he came from. It was just sort of natural."
After all, Sanford's former hairstyle and Fowler's current cut don't even look all that different.
Fowler, and the Duke Barber Shop that he now runs in the West Union basement, may be unbeknownst for many on campus, but he is a celebrity in the eyes of those whose hair he has clipped and shaved. Having started off as one of six shop employees in 1959, his time at the University outdates most of those who stroll through the Main Quad that sits above the store.
A high-school-educated Air Force veteran from Smithfield who values hard work, long hours, church and Andy Griffith, Fowler is a reflection of the "dear old Duke" we sing about and the global university we aspire to become. He has seen the campus transform from conservative to cultured; he has watched the shop integrate black—and female—stylists; he has witnessed change from the perspective of hair and has seen styles transition from short to slightly strange; and he seems to have embraced every step along the way. He's the kind of man who calls you "sir" on the phone yet isn't afraid of disagreeing with your political beliefs when you're sitting in the styling chair.
Mark Twain once wrote that "all things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change." Though Fowler's post at the Duke Barber Shop—which will mark its 100th anniversary this year—has certainly remained constant, Twain's commentary seems to contradict Fowler, who has adapted to new styles and different environments.
The shop still sees strong business—grad students even keep the place buzzing during summer months—but in many ways the days of the Duke Barber Shop have come and gone.
Once situated on the "main street" that was the West Union basement, which encompassed a full-service federal post office, a bank, a bookstore, a clothing shop and even an ice cream parlor of sorts, the Barber Shop was hard to miss.
"They say, 'Out of sight, out of mind,' well, we were never out of sight," Fowler said. "During class changes you couldn't walk out the door, you'd get run over out there. To see Duke about the only thing you had to do was walk up on the quad and look both ways."
And campus expansion entails more faculty, administrators, and even doctors, causing Fowler to see his personal connections with current Dukies dwindle. Fowler has always valued quality over quantity, and though the number of his relations with current administrators and faculty might have reduced, it's clear that the quality of his old clientele relations has survived. After all, the art of cutting hair is innately personal, especially for a barber who shudders at the thought of pulling off a basic cut in a mere 15 minutes. All you have to do is take a look at the walls of his shop, adorned with framed images and pasted photos of generations—literal generations—of clients who have frequented the shop throughout its century.
"The first day I walked into this place I was scared to death because I said, 'Oh, all these people with education—I ain't going to know what to say to them,'" he recalled. "But I found out that they just do one thing and I do something else."
His strategy for bridging whatever educational gap might exist between him and his client: "ask them a question and let them talk." In the process, the barber admits that he has learned a lot, including how to cut the hair of a diverse spread of the population. From cutting African American hair—which he referred to as a 'real art' and 'fascinating'—to adapting to the increasing Asian population on campus, changes to the University makeup have certainly had a unique effect on Fowler.
"I love it," he said.
Yet Fowler has recently noticed something he doesnít like: how customersí blood pressures seem to rise when they confront disagreement.
"There are a lot of people I don't agree with," he acknowledged. "But especially the [clients] in the past, it seemed like you could talk with them. I mean, I could bring up something I knew the person was opposed to, and yet heíd talk to me about it. I wish we had more cooperation—all the way from Washington to the Duke Barber Shop."
Fowler claims that the store has undergone renovation after renovation—including partitions, thoughts of opening a nail salon, and an (ever so slight) unofficial name change to Duke Haircutters—yet certain components of the store still evoke images of a 1950s salon.
Walking into the shop is confronting a microcosm of history. The quaint red, white and blue spirals are reflected in the large glass mirrors that line the long, narrow store. As I talked to Fowler, his feet swiveled over remnants of hair from his last cut of the dayóa former Duke golf coach who travels from Greensboro just for a haircut. For someone who had never set foot in the West Union basement, the way that Fowler's shop exudes history and tradition can be a little intimidating.
Though the shop is steeped in history, its future remains uncertain—at least to Fowler's knowledge. With extensive West Union renovations on the horizon, the store will have to find a new home. The pending change doesn't seem to faze Fowler, though—the store's nostalgia seems like it will always exist regardless of its physical address, especially given all of the memorabilia Fowler's customers have given him over the years.
"It's been good—it's really been good. I wish I could remember all of the people I've met, good gracious," said Fowler, who insists that he has no plans for retirement. "I have some things that people have given me through the years. I wonder where they are sometimes, but if they ever find me, I've still got their stuff."