By Stacey Eidson
When soldiers at Fort Gordon take a seat in 82-year-old Preston Tutt’s barber chair, they are getting more than a perfect haircut from a master barber.
They are meeting a legend at Fort Gordon.
“I’m the oldest man here, and I’ve been here the longest,” Tutt said, smiling as he finished up a soldier’s crew cut. “I started here in 1954. I’ve been cutting about five generations of hair out here at Fort Gordon. I can handle anybody.”
Tutt first arrived at Fort Gordon almost 65 years ago after a previous local job he had as a teenager offered very little pay.
“I’ve cut 300 heads of hair in one day about five times during my career. Those were long days, but we didn’t have enough sense to get tired. We just enjoyed it.” — Preston Tutt
“I started out at 74 cents an hour,” Tutt said, laughing about the previous job. “I worked there for 18 months and, by then, I was only making 84 cents an hour. That’s when I realized, ‘I’ve got to go. Enough is enough.’”
As a young teen, he had briefly worked at a barbershop and watched some of the men cut hair for a living.
“In 1965, I had a red, white and blue barber truck, and I remember President Dwight D. Eisenhower had one of his heart attacks here in Augusta and they took him here to Fort Gordon. Once he was feeling better, they wanted somebody to shave him. So I volunteered, and I shaved the president of the United States. The commander-in-chief. I was nervous shaving the president, but I enjoyed it, too.” — George Tutt
“I started off in a barbershop, as a teenage boy, shoe shining,” Tutt said. “I worked there one summer and I watched those guys cut hair and I said, ‘I could do that.’ So, money is what brought me here to Fort Gordon, and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Tutt has seen plenty of changes to the fort over the years, but, by far, the busiest time he had as a barber was during the peak of the Vietnam War.
“I’ve cut 300 heads a hair in one day about five times during my career,” Tutt said, shaking his head and laughing. “Those were long days, but we didn’t have enough sense to get tired. We just enjoyed it.”
However, Tutt is far from alone when it comes to remembering those long days cutting hair during the Vietnam War.
There are four other barbers — including his 80-year-old younger brother, George Tutt — who have cut hair at Fort Gordon for more than 50 years.
“This is my daddy,” George Tutt jokingly said, as he patted his older brother on the back. “I was in the military for six years, stationed stateside. But I started working out here around 1952.”
George Tutt, who is now retired after being a barber at Fort Gordon for 60 years, has cut some extraordinary people’s hair over the past six decades.
“In 1965, I had a red, white and blue barber truck, and I remember President Dwight D. Eisenhower had one of his heart attacks here in Augusta and they took him here to Fort Gordon,” George Tutt recalled. “Once he was feeling better, they wanted somebody to shave him. So I volunteered, and I shaved the president of the United States. The commander-in-chief. I was nervous shaving the president, but I enjoyed it, too.”
Fort Gordon was also a common stop for some of the CBS News reporters and anchors who were covering the Vietnam War, George Tutt said.
“I cut all of the CBS guys,” George Tutt said, adding that he once cut the hair of CBS reporters Dan Rather and Eric Sevareid. “In fact, Walter Cronkite was coming the next day and he told Dan Rather, ‘Tell the barber to save me a haircut. I’ll be there tomorrow.’
“During the Vietnam War, we had 48,000 troops on post and we had 55 barbers. One day, me and the barbers, we started at 7 a.m. and we didn’t finish until 10 p.m. at night. We cut two companies and a barracks. I cut 383 heads of hair that day.” — John Chandler
However, I left a day earlier, so I didn’t get to cut Walter Cronkite’s hair. But I was in high cotton.”
John Chandler, 77, has been a master barber at Fort Gordon since 1964, and he’ll never forget the line of soldiers that the Army would bring to the barbershop almost every day back when he first started.
“During the Vietnam War, we had 48,000 troops on post and we had 55 barbers,” Chandler said. “One day, me and the barbers, we started at 7 a.m. and we didn’t finish until 10 p.m. at night. We cut two companies and a barracks. I cut 383 heads of hair that day.”
“You beat my record!” Preston Tutt announced to the barbershop, as he listened to Chandler talk about those long days.
“We were young and foolish,” Chandler replied, chuckling. “We’ve always had a strong work ethic here. In fact, I also cut hair when I was in the Army. I was drafted in 1963, and I got out in 1965. But I would get off work every day and come straight to the barbershop.”
Chandler, who grew up in the small town of Fruithurst, Ala., wanted to make a good life for himself and his family in Augusta.
“While in the Army, I would get off of work at 4 p.m. and the barbershop was open until 9 p.m. and I would go straight to the barbershop,” he said. “I have been out here since February of 1964, so that’s about 54 years. As a matter of fact, I was a union pipefitter when I got drafted and I came here, but I never went back to it. I really enjoyed being a barber.”
When Chandler first started at the barbershop, it was occasionally a challenge dealing with some of the soldiers who were drafted during the Vietnam War, he said.
“Some of them, when they would come in, they really didn’t want to get a haircut,” Chandler said, smiling. “I remember one time we had to pick a guy up and slam him back down in the chair because he really didn’t want a haircut. When we finally cut his hair, he started crying.”
Master barbers Rufus Cole Jr., 80, and Edward Neal, 81, started at Fort Gordon’s barbershop at almost the same time back in 1962.
“We teach every barber how to cut all kinds of hair, whether they are black or white. We do all nationalities. And there are a lot of different textures of hair. You have to know the difference. You don’t want to mess it up. But I bet we’ve cut about a million heads of hair over the years.” — Edward Neal
“We started cutting hair when we were in high school, and we have been cutting hair ever since,” Cole said. “We were working downtown first and I was the first one to come out here in 1962. I liked it a lot, so I talked to him and he came out here, too.”
For more than 55 years, the two friends from Augusta have thoroughly enjoyed cutting soldiers’ hair at the fort.
“If you enjoy your job, time passes by a lot faster than you think it does,” Cole said, chuckling. “We probably had no idea that we were going to be out here so long when we started. But this job keeps us young at heart.”
Even the long days provided rewarding work, Neal said.
“Back during the Vietnam War when the troops were being sent here, we were constantly cutting hair. We didn’t catch up for about three years,” Neal said, laughing. “It was non-stop cutting hair because they were drafting them.”
Cole remembers getting ready to open the doors of the barbershop and seeing the line of soldiers stretched around the corner.
“Back then, they used to bring 200 soldiers at a time to the barbershop,” Cole said. “All they did was mark them in and line them up in front of the barbershop. They didn’t sit down in the chair or nothing. It was just one after another.”
But these days, the master barbers at Fort Gordon get to take their time and make sure they give their customers the exact haircut they want, so everyone is happy when they leave.
“I like listening to them and talking to people about what they want,” Preston Tutt said. “In the military, you have know how to cut every nationality in the world. We can cut everybody’s hair.”
While the barbershop at Fort Gordon mostly deals with men’s hair since there is a beauty salon right next door, that’s not always the case, Preston Tutt said.
“I can handle them all,” Preston Tutt said, smiling. “Actually, I met my wife out here. I met her in my barber’s chair. I sure did. She kept coming back. I waited a whole year before I asked her out.”
While it was a bit unusual to have a female customer at the barbershop, Preston Tutt hit the jackpot when he met this young lady.
“I now have a beautiful, young wife and two young babies,” the 82-year-old said, grinning from ear to ear.
While Preston Tutt said a gentleman never reveals a woman’s age, he did openly talk about the ages of his two young children.
“One of them is 6 years old, and the other one is 9,” he said. “They make my day. I love them and they keep me young. I don’t feel a day over 16.”
In fact, his kids enjoy coming to the barbershop to see their father cut the soldiers’ hair, he said.
“They like to come out and see me at work because they know Daddy is going to bring some money home,” Preston Tutt said, laughing. “But I like my kids seeing their old man working. I don’t want them to ever say, ‘My dad is a tired old man who never did work.’ At that age, it’s important to see their daddy working.”
But those aren’t Preston Tutt’s only children.
“I have nine children,” Preston Tutt said. “Seven girls and two boys and 12 grandkids.”
All five of the barbers began talking about their families and how they’ve all played an important role at the barbershop.
“I’ve got babies, too. My youngest baby is 53 years old,” Neal said, laughing. “I’ve got four children and five grandchildren.”
Years ago, the barbers’ children frequently visited the barbershop to see their fathers working, Chandler said.
“They all used to come out and see us,” Chandler said, adding that he has four children and seven grandchildren. “Like with Neal, I knew all of his kids and he knew all of mine.”
Cole, who doesn’t have any children, said everyone at the barbershop is like family.
“Sometimes you’ll feel bad or tired before you leave the house, but you come out here and you feel 100 percent better,” Cole said. “It’s family out here, and it makes a big difference. It’s a very special environment.”
In fact, Preston Tutt wasn’t the only barber who met his wife while working at Fort Gordon.
“We both met our second wives out here,” Cole said, as he nudged Neal and laughed.
Chandler also met his wife at Fort Gordon, but she unfortunately passed away in 1996.
“If you don’t learn anything from a barbershop, you’re stupid. Because you hear from everybody about every possible topic under the sun. And you meet folks from everywhere, and the majority of them are very nice people.” — John Chandler
“When I got out of the Army and came here, I met one the best, finest, prettiest women in the world,” Chandler said. “It changed my life. I went from a pipefitter to a barber, and I relocated to a very good place to raise my family that had good schools for my children. And I’m very proud to say that all of my kids are college graduates, and they all have excellent jobs. You can’t beat that.”
“And you know what? Neal is the same way,” he added. “All of his children are successful, and he feels the same way. This job has been very good to us.”
And all five of the barbers love the Augusta area.
“Augusta is perfect. It’s big enough, but not too big,” Chandler said. “I’ve worked all over the country in big cities, everywhere from Atlanta to Texarkana to Miami to Suffolk, Va., but Augusta is home.”
George Tutt retired a few years ago, but most of the barbers still proudly work five days a week cutting soldiers’ hair.
“I’m retired now, but I put in 60 years out here. I thought that was enough,” George Tutt said, chuckling. “But I miss it sometimes. Mainly the people.”
These days, he’s enjoying retirement with his family, including his two sons and two grandchildren, he said.
But the other four barbers say they aren’t ready to retire.
“We are tired; we just don’t want to retire,” Cole jokingly said. “Not yet.”
Chandler said being a barber at Fort Gordon is good for his soul.
“I enjoy it. It makes me get up out of bed, get cleaned up and shaved. It feels good,” Chandler said. “A lot of people will lay in the bed until 12 o’clock or sit around watching TV. That’s not for me. You have to get up.”
And there is not a day that goes by that the barbers don’t learn something new, he said.
“If you don’t learn anything from a barbershop, you’re stupid,” Chandler said, laughing. “Because you hear from everybody about every possible topic under the sun. And you meet folks from everywhere, and the majority of them are very nice people.”
As a matter of fact, Chandler said he learned how to properly invest in the stock market by talking to some of his customers.
“A lot people go to the VFW or the American Legion to socialize,” he said. “We socialize at the barbershop and, here, we ain’t smoking and drinking.”
For the past 50 years or more, all five barbers said it has truly been an honor serving the troops and their families at Fort Gordon.
“When the soldiers go other places, they will come back here to Fort Gordon and say, ‘They didn’t know how to give a good haircut there,’” Preston Tutt said, laughing. “And I always say, ‘Didn’t I tell you there was no place like home?’ Out here you get a master barber and we can correct anything.”
Each and every day there are plenty of bad haircuts to correct, Chandler said.
“Great Clips is our best friend,” he said, chuckling. “We straighten out a lot of their haircuts.”
Both Chandler and Neal said one of their favorite aspects of the job is teaching the new, young barbers who come to Fort Gordon about how to cut all kinds of hair.
“Most of the barbers that come here, they’ve never cut a flattop,” Chandler said. “I just say, ‘Come here and watch me and learn.’ But all of the younger barbers are nice, easy to get along with and we are happy to help them. We enjoy it.”
And each barber needs to learn how to handle every customer who walks in the door, Neal said.
“We teach every barber how to cut all kinds of hair, whether they are black or white. We do all nationalities,” Neal said. “And there are a lot of different textures of hair. You have to know the difference. You don’t want to mess it up. But I bet we’ve cut about a million heads of hair over the years.”
“Over a million,” Chandler responded, laughing. “We definitely know what we are doing out here because, you know what? People don’t want you experimenting on their heads.”