Friday, January 30, 2009

The Barber of Saint Marys: A Tribute to My Father (Part I)

Barack Obama has nothing on me. He wrote a book entitled "Dreams from My Father" in which he chronicled a story of "Race and Inheritance", as the book is subtitled. Obama never actually grew up with his biological father, who abandoned him with his mother at a young age. He probably developed a great deal of resent and anger for his father's actions but chose to overcome the "neglect" and "absence" by becoming a stronger, more optimistic individual.

My story is quite different ...

My biological father is Gerald Rentz, the barber of Saint Marys, Ohio, who has been cutting hair in the small city in Auglaize County for nearly 50 years. FIFTY YEARS ... that's longer than many people live ... longer than MOST people work ... a half-century establishing himself as the barber of three generations (or more). I cannot even imagine what he means to the thousands of customers who have walked through the door of his small shop on Spring Street in downtown Saint Marys.

Most of his customer base is aging, while the younger set has fallen away to go to the malls and chain discounters who offer styles at cheaper prices. He is a man set in his ways, having fixed his price at $10 many years ago already, after having it set around $7 to $8 for a very long time. The price of a haircut has hardly stayed in line with overall economic inflation, where staples like milk, eggs, soda, and gasoline have doubled in price in recent years.

What makes my dad, part of a dwindling breed of male barbers from an era long ago, different? What has established him as THE longest-tenured barber still working in the area full-time? He is cut from a cloth that my own grandmother, a widowed mother raising three sons, established many years earlier. I will save my grandmother's story (rest her soul) for another day and another time ... she was a remarkable woman who still manages to impact my life in countless ways. My grandfather, my namesake, died in 1943. My father was born in 1940, the youngest of three brothers, following in the footsteps of his oldest half-brother Eugene and his middle brother Harold. Why my grandmother named her children Eugene, Harold, and Gerald is a mystery to me ... but all of them shortened their respective names to the more sociable Gene, Harry, and Jerry. Gene was a military man, having served in World War II, considerably older than my father. Harry, born in 1938, was closest to my dad, but their relationship could hardly be described as anything greater than "sibling rivalry" when it came to competing for my grandmother's love and attention.

Grandma Henrietta (who would have been cooler as a "Hank" or something else) was a cool woman ... possibly too cool for the time period in which she lived. Grandpa John was an older man (possibly 15 to 20 years her senior) who befriended my grandmother after she had given birth to my uncle Gene out of wedlock. A single mother in the 1930s wasn't looked upon kindly, especially when the real, biological father was unknown (to everyone except for grandma, the father, and possibly the immediate family). The Zahn family, one of the more "prominent" names in the area, treated Gene like one of their own until John Rentz adopted him as his own son somewhere in the mid-to-late 1930s. To be honest, I'm not sure that Grandma and Grandpa Rentz got married because they HAD TO get married (grandma was "with child" (Harry) again) OR because they truly loved each other. Grandpa John was a travelling musician back in the day (his stories must have been legendary) as a fiddle player in a country band. Grandma worked on the farm with her many sisters and brothers. As a quick summary, she had older brother Paul (who died a young age in a car wreck), younger brother Urban (a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who owned the Chickasaw Machine and Tool), and younger sisters (twins) Iola (who lived in Saint Henry) and Viola (married a Stammen who lived in Coldwater) as well as Mary (who married Charles Hueslman, who lived in Chickasaw, across the street from my grandmother's house). I came to know my great aunts very well (probably better than I wanted to know) when Grandma would visit all of them throughout the summers I spent with her. Again, this is Dad's story, not Grandma's, so I will digress on this topic.

Dad was only three-years-old when Grandpa John died. Stories say that he died due to complications from kidney stones (very possible), but, of equal possibility, he may have had cancer (spreading to the kidneys) possibly from the liver or pancreas. He was only in his mid-to-late 50's. My grandmother was 36. Of horrible irony agewise, my uncle (my godfather) Harry also died in his 50's of a massive heart attack (failure of a coronary artery), which still haunts me to this day. If the track record for males in this family is any indication, I have a 50-50 shot to die in my fifties or make it to my 70's or beyond. Thankfully, my father is in the latter camp (now pushing 69 in March), heading closer each year towards Grandma's "record" of 95, which my father claims he doesn't want to reach (he hurts too much already, he says).

Within the year of my grandfather's death, my grandmother needed steady income beyond the farm and went to work for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Saint Marys. She sold the farm, located midway between Chickasaw and Saint Marys, and moved into town in Chickasaw down the street from sister Mary and brother-in-law Charlie as well as a block away from brother Urban, whose business was less than a quarter-mile to the north on Chickasaw Road. Interestingly, her property also sat on the opposite bank of the Chickasaw Creek from the Rentz Family Farm, not immediate family but second cousins, which sat on the East side of the creek on State Route 274. Because the Rentz family was well-known in the area for their large real estate holdings (extensive farm ground owned throughout Mercer and Auglaize counties), my father was assumed to have the "Rentz money" (which, unfortunately, I suppose, he owned or was entitled to none).

There were some family "firsts" worth noting. Great-uncle Urban, as I noted, owned the first major business in Chickasaw, which has since been passed within the "family" to my cousin's families (LaVern Heitkamp, Dan Bruns, and (I believe) Steve Heitkamp), who bought out Urban as full-time owners of the business. LaVern is my Dad's first or second cousin (on the Zahn side), same goes for Steve. Dan's dad, Julius, was a farmer who lived next to Charlie and Mary's house on Franklin Street (on the north side of the road from where my grandmother eventually built her own home). The Rentz family, which consisted of Grandma, Uncle Harry, and my Dad, moved into the home on Maple Street (running perpendicular into Franklin Street) adjacent to the Catholic Church (Precious Blood) on the South side of the property. My grandmother was a devout Catholic (who had clearly reformed from her "wilder" youth by her late-30's) who went to Church every Sunday (usually on Saturday evening in her older age) as well as EVERY holy day of obligation. You haven't lived life until you go to Church four straight days for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday in succession. Those days are HELL (pardon my irony for celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ) with some of the longest readings and Gospel passages known to man.

Anyway, Grandma worked for Goodyear until the mid-1970s while my uncle Harry and father Jerry went to school (St. John's in Maria Stein, which become Marion Local after the local schools consolidated in the mid-1950's). As a sidenote, my father went to school for a year in Minster as the new school was being built for Marion Local High School, and he graduated as the FIRST class (of 1958) from Marion, even though (technically) he never really went to school there. I also graduated from Marion Local in 1994, a little bit better academically (as valedictorian) than my father (who was a B-average student), but there is no doubt in my mind that my Dad is a smarter-than-average man.

Instead of going to college (something I believe he still regrets to this day), his brother Gene convinced him to go to barber school (something he had done years earlier after military discharge and older brother Harry was also considering). Why be a barber in the late-1950's? The pay was good, the work was steady, the economy was strong ... we were between wars (Korean and Vietnam), and John F. Kennedy, America's first Catholic president, was about to take office. Clearly, the market timing to be a barber was right ... until the late 1960s.

For those with memories only to the 1980s or 1990s, you may think that "long hair" is a current fashion statement that your parents could not POSSIBLY understand. Check out pictures of your grandparents, then ... circa 1968 or 1969 ... and tell me how a barber managed to survive in those lean years of long hair, "hippie power", and Woodstock. The 1970's weren't much better, as my Dad saw his income steadily decline and the requests for the short cuts of the past (like the flat-top or the crew cut) go out of fashion. Clearly, the cycle was destined to repeat itself (eventually) as the 1980's dawned, and, in my personal belief, it took an "old-fashioned" President (Ronald Reagan) as well as the rebirth of Conservatism to see haircuts get shorter, flat-tops become "cool" again, and, generally speaking, business to be good.

For all of those years, from the early 1960s until the early 1990s, Dad was in a partnership with Harry. For over 30 years, he stood by, as the "younger" brother, the "lesser" partner, because that's just how it was. The shop's look was old, with model cars on the mantle from the 1960's, and Dad readily admitted he was thinking of breaking away from Harry permanently because their relationship had grown apart over time. There is great truth to the statement that you should NOT go into business with your family ... Harry and Jerry, as partners of Rentz Barber Shop, were clearly the model for what NOT to do over time. Yes, their banter was enjoyable. Yes, they argued a LOT over the years. Most days, my father came home angry, ready to kick the dog with another story about how Harry had "pissed him off" again that day. They needed to be apart as business associates ... their familial relationship had been strained and compromised because of it.

When Harry died suddenly in 1993, it was an awakening for my father. Considering it was 15 years ago last September, which seems almost too long ago to be real, I never got to see my godfather at my graduation. I stood on the podium, giving my valedictory speech to an audience that was one short.

... I apologize for needing to stop at this point. I am overcome with sadness over a loss I've never fully accepted. I cannot believe I was only only 17 when Harry died, and I am honestly struggling with it right now. I miss him.

Rest In Peace, Harold Rentz (1938-1993). The Lord took you too young at 55 that year ... you were a Gemini (born June 21) just like me, and I fully understand why you fought with my father. You never felt appreciated ... even though you did far more for your community than they ever understood or recognized. I thank you ... and Chickasaw (as well as Saint Marys) should thank you ... for a good life lived.

PART II of The Barber of Saint Marys will continue in my next post ... thanks for reading.

Post-script Editorial Note: For MORE information about my father, please read this informative piece from the Evening Leader in Saint Marys that was done earlier this month (January 2009) covering my Dad. He has also been covered by the Lima News, the Evening Leader (previously), and the Community Post (now defunct (I think)) in Minster, Ohio. My former guidance counselor, Ivan Knapp, covered Dad last year in an article he wrote for his photographic web journal as well. I will need to find the link there as well for next time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Get your shit straight!