After more than 65 years of dedicated, first-rate service to the community, local barber Vern Dempsey closed his downtown Stettler doors for the last time on Oct. 31st.
A retirement party was held Nov. 2nd at the Spruce Terrace condos.
“It’s been 67 years in this same spot,” explained Dempsey during a recent chat at the shop.
He’s worked in two different buildings located on the same lot on Main Street, with the current one having been constructed about 30 years ago.
Dempsey hails from southern Saskatchewan.
“I went to a country school, but I didn’t like school very much,” he said with a smile. “I was kind of skipping around with it. Dad was reading the free press there one night, and said, ‘Well, the barber school in Regina is looking for customers – I think maybe you should think about going in for a barber. You don’t like to go to school, so you should think about that’.
“I thought, well, that’s a good idea – I’m going to go for that. So I went to Regina to the barber school there in the fall of 1949.”
He was just 16 years old at the time.
Ultimately, he finished his studies the following spring, and meanwhile, his father had been considering relocating to Alberta as he was thinking more about delving into the cattle business.
“He found a place out east – about 100 miles east of here and a little bit south,” he recalled. “I thought, I’m coming out to Alberta, too. Folks were moving out here that spring – so I came and worked for a thrashing outfit for a couple of years.”
He was also on the lookout for a place to apprentice with a local barber.
“In those days, you went to school for six months and then you apprenticed for a year and one-half, and then you wrote your exams. So that’s what I did – I apprenticed with a barber in Coronation and then wrote my exam in Edmonton.
“I then had the chance to rent the pool hall in Consort. The lady there had a restaurant in the front and her husband had run the pool hall. He had passed away, so she was trying to do both. She was older, and she had some girls helping her with the restaurant – but it was a big job for her.”
Dempsey went ahead with renting the pool hall, setting up his barber chair in the corner.
“Of course, it was a small town so there really wasn’t enough business. So I also drove a school bus, too,” he recalled of those Consort days.
Eventually, his landlady wanted the pool hall back so he offered to just rent the corner where his barbershop service was.
Through a connection with another school bus driver, he was introduced to the idea of relocating to Stettler. With a shortage of business in Consort, the time sure seemed right.
“There was a barbershop here, an old one that was two-storeys with a lawyer above. It was ground level,” he explained. “I met the barber, and he said, ‘Gee, I’d sure like to hire you’.
They went to the shop so Dempsey could take a closer look. “I said, it looks good to me! He said, ‘When would you start work?’ I said, I’ll come the first of next week – just like that. That was in 1952. So that’s what I did – I came to work, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Dempsey worked with that barber – Ivar McIvar – for 25 years.
“Then he sold out to me, and stayed on for five years working for half-days,” he explained.
Over the years, Dempsey had up to two others working with him for a time. During slower years, he had another worker along with himself. The past while, it’s been just him – but business had certainly been steady. Besides being a barbershop, it was always a place to drop by for a friendly visit and a cup of coffee, too.
“I’m the last barber in town,” he added with a laugh.
For Dempsey, it’s been a great way to make a living but it’s also been a wonderful means of being involved in community life.
“Every guy is different. They all talk about different things,” he said, adding how the variety of conversations has never ceased to be fascinating.
“There’s lot of gossip – if there is any gossip around town, they will be telling you about it,” he added with a laugh. “They just like to have a good visit with you. And then the next guy, well, he doesn’t want to talk,” he said.
“You get to the point where you sense that. Some, you start quizzing them (about what they did) a little bit. One guy told me, ‘You wouldn’t know if I did tell you!’ So that was it,” recalled Dempsey with a chuckle. “There were no more questions.
“But most people want to talk – they are quite willing. They like to have a good visit with you.”
As to retiring, Dempsey, who is 86, was more than happy to stick with it past the conventional retirement age of 65.
But after a chat with his son, he decided it was time to call it a career.
And although there’s been mixed feelings, some nostalgic chats, and lots of memories coming back to him, he has no regrets. “The community has always been good to me – I can’t kick about Stettler. It’s been a good little business town.
“People are friendly here – I have always found it that way.”