Every morning, Dick Tee gulps a cup of hot water and greets a lineup of shaggy-haired kids, old-timers and farmers eager to recline in his orange barber chair and get a decent old-fashioned buzz cut.
“I know all the families that come in for cuts,” Tee says. “I love this shop and I love this part of the country because I’m comfortable here and everyone knows me, bless their hearts.”
Tee, 74, owns the only barbershop in Tekoa. In fact, his tiny storefront - decorated with pink plastic chairs and neat stacks of National Geographic from the early ‘80s - is the only barbershop in northeastern Whitman County.
Tee easily could cash in on his regional monopoly. Instead, he chooses to dole out free bobs and brush cuts to college students, high school athletes and members of the U.S. military.
“Money means nothing to me,” he says. “If anyone’s strapped for cash, I’ll do it for free. If I can’t give people something back by my age, when will I ever be able to?”
He also makes house calls to local shut-ins and charges senior citizens only $3, a 25 percent discount off his maximum price of $4.
And when mothers and wives wander into the shop, Tee points to his beautician license from 1960. He invites all women onto his vinylcushioned barber chair for free cuts - a pleasant contrast to upscale stylists who charge women far more than they do men.
“If they don’t like it, at least they can’t complain about the price,” Tee jokes.
Tee has known most of his older clients since he was a child on his grandfather’s homestead ranch in nearby Latah. He moved to Tekoa in 1978, and his barber pole has been swirling on the corner of Crosby and Warren for the past 10 years.
Tee lives to chat with locals, but his favorite clients are the “old-timers” he’s known since grade school.
“They don’t gripe,” he says. “To them, haircuts are haircuts, bless their hearts. What’s important is what we talk about: farming, wheat prices, vacations - things that really mean something when you look back.”
But he admits that the close bond he has formed with his regulars can turn into a painful reminder of his own mortality.
“The thing that hurts worst is the customers who have passed on. It hits so hard when they’re dying,” says Tee, who recently was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It reminds you that you’re going along pretty well, and then one day …” His face turns somber but he composes himself by glancing at the plastic combs, hand mirrors and shampoo that have been his life for the past decade.
“I’m hoping for five or six more years. Life’s been a lot of fun. I start thinking about the bad times and I realize I don’t have a lot of sad memories. It’s fortunate when you can look back and only see happy times.”
Tee graduated from beautician school in 1960 while working on the night shift as a nurse in Seattle.
“I made twice as much money with a four-chair barbershop than I did at the hospital,” he says. “Times were tougher then, so I did it to make extra money.”
But Seattle’s “fast pace” burned him out. He moved to Tekoa, bought a hog farm, married and put his two children through college before selling the farm and retiring in 1983.
“Now I enjoy life. The barbershop is my hobby, and I think it’s beautiful to have a hobby that’s so creative at my age.”
Although he admits that he’s not up on the latest technology in perm rods or peroxide - he tends to give everyone “the same above-theneckline cut” - Tee works hard to please his customers.
“I’m in every day, Monday through Friday, at 6 in the morning, and I don’t leave until 4. I read the newspaper every day just to have something to talk to the customers about.”
Tee has just finished trimming Byron Smith’s hair - the same cut he’s been giving him for the past decade, except that now Smith is losing more hair to his growing bald spot than to Tee’s deft hands.
The self-described old-timers have been friends since childhood.
“There’s no better person in Tekoa,” Smith says while brushing a few snips of gray hair from his suspenders and flannel shirt. “I wouldn’t trust this head of hair to anyone else in the world.”
Tee gingerly clutches his friend’s hand and pats him on the back before Smith heads down a deserted Crosby Street. “Bless his heart,” Tee mumbles.