You know how you intend to do some things and never really get around to them, and then it’s too late. So it is with this piece. I intended to write it a long time ago but life got in the way. Because it’s a bit overdue, you’ll have to be patient and read a bit longer.
Roger Russell died on Friday, May 27. Let me explain why that is so important. My office is in a residential community called Olathe, Kansas. It’s famous for being part of the Santa Fe Trail, the westward expansion. We’ve had a lot of famous people cross that trail. It’s a place where pioneers and settlers met. Some ventured onward. Some settled and chose instead to carve a life out of the Kansas prairie.
Roger’s family was one of those settlers—farmers they were. And with the farming comes hardship, hope for rain that sometimes never comes, crops that sometimes do arrive. All the while you learn to trust that this life is not about you. It’s about faith in a big God who supplies just in time. It’s about family that stands through thick and thin. And it’s about the flag—supporting all these values we hold dear and true.
Roger was all of those. He joined the Marines, but wanted to come back home after his tour of duty. He told his dad that he wanted to make a living taking care of people—cutting hair, a barber, a stylist. I’m not sure of all the proper terms to describe what he did (maybe artist?), but I guess his dad got the message, although I sometimes wonder what the farmer thought of the stylist.
But Roger was good at it—really good. He had that special knack of cutting your hair, styling it, and knowing what would make you look sharp. No one ever left his chair with less than his best. He started out with a shop in Mission, then Roeland Park, then Olathe. His customers followed him wherever he went.
And that’s where I met him—in his shop, Roger’s Hairstyling. I usually scheduled my appointments on the way home. At that time, I was working downtown, and the trek was through traffic and stress. I’d collapse in his chair, and he’d go to work. But his magic, I guess, really wasn’t with hair. It was the stories. He’d ask questions—simple, non-threatening, quiet ones, and pretty soon you’d be telling some story that you’d forgotten. Before long Roger knew my entire life story.
But it didn’t stop there. Roger admired my story, and he brought his own faith into the story. I heard of his own disappointments. I was there when his son was switching jobs and the uncertainty. I was there when his daughter struggled with the childless years. He was the one to give my own firstborn her first haircut. We still keep that locket.
I think you always want to remember people like Roger as your own, but of course he was not. Roger treated me the same way he treated every customer. He gave the same dose of love and care. It’s a rare gift of a man who can make people look better while he makes them feel better about themselves. Sometimes when entering his shop, I saw other men and women leave with a smile on their face—troubles not gone, but bearable, better.
For more than 40 years, he treated people that way. He brought the hope of Christ to many. Some just found hope. He died suddenly. I remember that he told me that was the way he wanted to go—nothing long and drawn out. I could tell more stories about him. He loved flowers. He loved growing them. He loved his wife. He loved his family. He loved crafts. He always had a booth at the annual craft fair appropriately called Old Settler’s Days. And he had a taste for bad food—that is food that was bad for you: fried chicken with the skin on it and these deep-fried hotdog things called Grange Pups. There’s still more…
At the visitation which started at 6:00, people began showing up at 5:30. By 6:00, there was a line out the door, and by 6:30 the line was snaking all throughout the church. I came in the door about the time two little old ladies were shuffling in; they were 96- and 94-years old, respectively, and had been some of his first customers. My, how they laughed and told how they loved him, and, oh, their hair looked sharp. I saw people in that visitation line that I had no idea that would have known him.
How foolish of me! For more than 40 years, this settler had carved a life, yea, indeed a legacy out of this rough pasture. He’d brought grace and beauty to the weariness. And those who stood in line for hours were his testimony to a life lived well—this man called Roger. His life, his legacy beckons us, calls us to examine and reexamine the state of our own story.
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Published June 3, 2011