Longtime Searcy barber still cutting hair after 55 years behind the chair

By Lisa Burnett Published March 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Joe Cunningham, 81, has been cutting hair in Searcy since opening the East End Barber Shop, now named East End Joe’s, in 1958 with Raymond Hill. Cunningham still works two days a week.

Joe Cunningham, who has been a barber since 1953, knew he wanted to cut hair when he was 13 years old. His father was a barber, and Cunningham said that’s what he had wanted to do for as long as he could remember.

Cunningham was born in Van Buren but spent most of his childhood in Greenwood, where he graduated from high school.

“We lived in Van Buren until I was about 7 years old, and then we moved to Fort Smith, and then my mom and dad divorced,” Cunningham said.

After about a year apart, his mother and father both remarried.

“Then we moved to Greenwood, and that’s where I lived most of the time, but I lived with my dad for two years,” Cunningham said.

When Cunningham was 13, he went to live in Heavener, Okla., with his dad, who had a barber shop.

“I was shining shoes in the shop, and I thought [cutting hair] looked like so much fun, so I talked the other shine boy into letting me cut his hair,” Cunningham said.

His father showed him the correct techniques, and by the time Cunningham was 14, he could give a decent haircut.

“I got my own tools, and I’d go out and get kids who couldn’t afford haircuts to practice on, and I got to where I could really cut hair,” he said.

The barber who worked with Cunningham’s father became ill and was having to miss work quite a bit, and this gave Cunningham a chance to show off his skills to his father.

“I would cut hair after school and on Saturdays at my dad’s shop when I was 14 years old, but I didn’t get a license to start working full time until 1953,” he said.

Cunningham moved back to Greenwood with his mother and graduated from high school in 1951, but he didn’t get behind the barber’s chair right out of high school.

“My stepdad worked at the coal mines, and when I got out [of high school] at 18, I went to work at the coal mines,” he said. “That was the best job you could get in 1951.”

Cunningham was making $20 a day, five days a week, but he still couldn’t get the thought of becoming a barber out of his head.

“I worked [at the mines] in 1951 and 1952, and it got to where it cost so much to mine coal that they couldn’t sell it. I got to where I was working two days a week,” he said. “I still had my barber tools, and I had been cutting hair the whole time I was living with my mother.”

While he was in high school, after working with his father in Oklahoma, Cunningham said, he would have kids come home with him on the school bus, and he’d give them haircuts.

After things slowed down at the mines, Cunningham’s father had sold his barber shop but had taken a job as the barber supervisor at Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith.

“I asked him, ‘If I go to barber school and get my license, could I make $100 a week?’” Cunningham said.

His father told him he would be able to make that money, and it was off to barber school for Cunningham.

“You had to have a master license to work at an Army base, so I went to Tulsa, and in six months, I had my master license,” he said.

He worked at Fort Chaffee for four years.

“I missed Elvis, though,” Cunningham said. “He got his first [Army] haircut there, but the guy who did [the haircut] — I worked right beside him for a couple of years.”

When Cunningham’s four years were up at Fort Chaffee, he went to work for his father once again, but this time it was at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville.

“My dad was the barber supervisor there,” Cunningham said.

He worked at the Air Force base for about a year and a half before coming to Searcy.

“While I was working there, I met a fellow from Kensett, and he knew about a shop [in Searcy], and he talked me into coming up here in 1958,” Cunningham said. “We opened our shop, East End Barber Shop, the day after Labor Day in 1958. We worked together from then until 1976.”

Cunningham and Raymond Hill worked together until Hill started having trouble with his eyes. Cunningham then bought Hill out and worked on his own for 20 years before two of his grandchildren started working for him at the Searcy shop.

The shop is now named East End Joe’s.

During his time working as a barber, Cunningham has met a lot of people, including his wife, Amy.

“I was cutting hair one day, and she pulled up and got out of the car, and I thought, ‘My goodness, that’s the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen in my life,’” he said.

His future wife brought her son in to get a haircut. At this point, Cunningham’s first wife had died, he said.

“She was wearing an opal ring on her finger. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have ever said anything to her,” he said. “I asked her if she was single, and she said that she was.”

Cunningham cut his soon-to-be-stepson’s hair while Amy held him still.

“After we were done, we talked until I got busy. We sat and talked for a pretty good while, and that night, we talked on the phone all night long. I mean all night long,” he said.

The two were married in 1973, and Cunningham’s family of three grew by four. His wife had three children, and he had two.

Tragedy struck in 1994 when his wife was in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down.

“My wife was teaching school at Pangburn at the time,” he said. “A car ran her off the road, and the top of the car came down on her neck.”

When he’s at home, Cunningham takes care of his wife, and when he’s working, his wife has a caretaker.

Cunningham continued to work full time for about four years after his wife’s accident, but in 1998 he decided to cut his time at the barber shop to two days a week.

“It wasn’t fair to her,” he said.

On the days Cunningham cuts hair in the shop, he doesn’t take appointments, but he is there from 6:30 in the morning until about 1 p.m. and is usually busy the entire time.

“I have so many friends [I’ve made by cutting hair]. I’ve got people who I’ve cut their hair here for 55 years,” he said. “It’s been something that I really enjoy. I look forward to coming to work.”

Online News Editor Lisa Burnett can be reached at lburnett@arkansasonline.com.

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