John Vreeman was just out of barber school, barely 20 years old, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey sat down in his swivel chair.
The young barber trembled as he cut the political VIP’s hair at the Sheraton-Ritz hotel barber shop in downtown Minneapolis. As Humphrey got up to leave with an entourage of Secret Service and media, Vreeman figured he’d probably botched it: “I was such a nervous wreck,” he said. “I remember distinctly being a little shaky ... I didn’t feel I did the kind of job I should have done.”
But Humphrey came back, and so did a stream of other distinguished men over the following decades: then-U. S. Sen. Walter Mondale, federal judges, FBI agents and others.
This week, after half century of styling many of Minnesota’s elite, Vreeman, 70, is hanging up his scissors for good.
“I’ve got so many clients I consider friends,” Vreeman said. “You get to know them very well.”
Life in half-hours
Vreeman hasn’t bothered keeping track of how many haircuts he’s given in his lifetime, scheduled in half-hour increments.
After graduating from high school in Raymond, Minn., he was about to join the military when the barber school in St. Paul where he was wait-listed called with a last-minute opening.
He landed a job at the Sheraton-Ritz between Nicollet and Marquette, in the Minneapolis business district and across the street from the federal courthouse at the time. Powerful clients often wandered in.
Vreeman learned to talk to them about, well, anything.
“John has exactly the right temperament for a barber,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Rank, as he recently sat in Vreeman’s chair for the last time. “It’s an absolute skill. John’s got a particular genius for knowing what level people want to talk at.”
A lanky 6-foot-2, Vreeman is typically upbeat and always a little antsy. He learned how to be a calm sounding board as he hovered over his clients, clipping with scissors, shaving with a straight razor and rubbing their necks with a massager.
Some would talk business or sports, some would tell him all about their families, and yes, some would talk politics. He cut men’s hair through their divorces and marriages, the births of their children and the deaths of their loved ones.
“You just listen and you don’t ask,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me things they wouldn’t tell their wife or very best friend ... That’s the kind of relationship we get to have with people.”
A smock and wingtips
Vreeman marveled at how much has changed since he gave his first professional haircut downtown in July 1967.
The shop charged $5.50 then, and the Foshay Tower defined the Minneapolis skyline. At the time, Vreeman wore a smock and wingtip shoes. He tried to appear older to make his clients feel more comfortable.
Vreeman and his wife, Linda, bought the business in 1970. She kept track of the books and the inventory while he gave the cuts.
Mondale stopped in for a haircut just before going to Georgia for an interview to become Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Vreeman recalls.
Apparently, the haircut was good.
“I became vice president, so I was out in Washington more. I got a White House barber there,” Mondale said last week. “He wasn’t as good as John.”
Before the Sheraton-Ritz closed in the late ’80s, the Vreemans moved the shop to the skyway level of the Crossings condominium building at Washington and 2nd avenues.
The business helped put their two sons through engineering school.
Vreeman rarely missed a day of work, returning to his station as soon as possible even after a fall left his jaw wired shut. Once, after he dropped his shears and accidentally stabbed himself in the stomach, he continued to cut hair until it became clear he had to go to the emergency room. He was back that afternoon.
“I’ve never seen anybody so dedicated,” said Donna Link, who has worked next to Vreeman for 21 years. “It’s more than just a business to him.”
A decade ago, he sold the shop to Link. Last year, she sold it to Moises Gutierrez Barban and Karina Gutierrez, a married couple who emigrated from Mexico.
Vreeman is pleased to see his American dream passed on from one generation to another.
“They are going to do very well,” he said of the new owners. “They are a very good barber and hairdresser, and also very good people.”
Time to catch up
Over the decades, Vreeman traded his wingtips for comfort shoes with orthotics and compression socks. He’s no longer trying to look older than he is. The bulk of his regular customers retired, but many still drive in regularly from far-flung suburbs just to sit in his chair.
For a few who can no longer travel, Vreeman makes house calls, driving to a home or health care facility to deliver his talents and friendship. For a half-hour each, they get to catch up with their pal. It’s fun for him, too, he says.
The people are what he’ll miss most. But he’s looking forward to going to his cabin, reading more and cheering on his grandkids at their sports events.
And he imagines he’ll catch up with a few of his customers over lunch now and then, he said.
“I can be pretty busy.”
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102