In common parlance the word “institution” often becomes a cliché, giving the speaker a wide latitude in describing a particular individual. Over the past near-37 years that I have written this item, I specifically have tried to avoid the use of such clichés, trite expressions and redundancies. Now, as I sit writing this piece, I conclude that no other word exists to describe the place of George Urban in the modern history of the lower Northern Neck.
To say that he spent six decades barbering in Kilmarnock is only but part of his story, the fulness of which would take volumes to bring forth. George died at the age of 95 on Monday. Earlier this year, he “retired” from cutting hair at his shop on South Main Street, where his loyal following of customers came as much to be with him as to benefit from his tonsorial abilities.
For nearly a half century, George cut my hair, and before me, that of my father, and in more recent years that of the Elder B.E. When one sat in his antique barber’s chair, George would begin his process with a pat on the shoulder, and after he had finished snipping, trimming, “pruning” and shaving, his task would end with another pat on the shoulder. The routine never changed.
Between the shoulder pats, the conversation was always lively, informative and engaging. For my part, I wanted to talk about the extraordinarily fascinating life he had led, from being a young boy growing up in Lancaster County, to his enlisting in the U.S. Navy at 17 to serve his country in wartime, to his return home after nearly four years of active duty, to his subsequent life.
During the Second World War, George was serving on a Navy ship when the commander informed him the men all needed haircuts, and he then proceeded to hand him a barber’s kit that had arrived on board, thus beginning his remarkable profession. For four years of that career, George served as a barber for the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, but the lure of the Northern Neck was too strong in this native son, and he returned to Kilmarnock where he opened his own barber shop on South Main Street.
I liked to tell George, and many of his other customers over the years, that our country suffered a significant decline when he stopped telling the Members of Congress how to vote.
George underwent surgery for carotid artery repair a few years ago, and as soon as he was able, he was back at the old stand, welcoming his customers. Early this year, he retired a few weeks short of his 95th birthday, bringing great joy, I am sure, to his wife of 72 years, Naomi.
Not being a golfer, I am not abreast of golfing terms, but I have known several folks who have shot a hole-in-one. George is the only person I ever knew who had shot three holes-in-one. Knowing his concern with precision in all that he did makes those feats blend into the overall pattern of his life.
George came to work every day wearing a white shirt and a necktie with a fish-motif tie clip. He wore a neat brim hat; he drove a pickup with the license plate, “GWU II”; he kept a meticulously clean shop, sweeping between each customer.
The haircut was but a small part of going to his shop. More significantly, it was the vehicle which allowed his customers to spend time with him. He never cut my hair without my coming away wiser and enriched from the experience—not to mention, much neater. I would leave telling him that I wished my hair would grow faster and that I were sufficiently wealthy for me to be able to come every day.
Indeed, George was an “institution” among us, and that is not a cliché. It is simply the only word that begins to cover the wonderful person he was. For four-and-a-half years less than a century, in every aspect of his life, George was a Great American.
George William Urban II, May 12, 1925 – November 30, 2020. R.I.P.