Barbershop duet

By Lydialyle Gibson

Photography by Dan Dry

On a Thursday afternoon in late September, opera historian Philip Gossett appeared in the doorway of the Reynolds Club Barbershop. “Silvestre, I need your help,” he said, running his fingers through an arc of silver hair, which had started curling up at the neck. In a blue nylon jacket and aviator bifocals, Silvestre Vigilante, who since 1964 has barbered the heads of Chicago presidents, professors, students, and scholars, patted the empty chair in front of him. “Sit down, my friend,” he told Gossett. “I can take you now.”

Photo: Silvestre Vigilante Silvestre Vigilante has barbered hair at the Reynolds Club for more than four decades.

With four days to go before fall-quarter classes started, the campus was reconvening: students returning from internships, professors returning from fieldwork, incoming first-years roaming the quads in packs. Some, if not all, were in need of a haircut. In the basement of the Reynolds Club, where the barbershop opened when the building did in 1903, Vigilante and fellow barber Mitch Mutluguler were seeing steady traffic. Most patrons were professors or grad students; all were men. “I don’t cut women’s hair,” said Vigilante, a densely built man with a boyish, abetting smile and an accent he brought with him from the hillsides of Italy’s Foggia province. “Women’s hair is complicated—I don’t want to make enemies.” (There have been exceptions, among them poet Gladys Campbell, PhB’18, AM’37, who taught English in the Lab Schools and the College for 35 years. In 1992, when Campbell could no longer walk, Vigilante made a house call to her 56th Street apartment to trim her hair a few days before she celebrated her 100th birthday. “I went during lunch,” he said. “She was one of those customers you keep forever.”)

It was past noon when Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker distinguished service professor of music and a decades-long customer of Vigilante’s, arrived at the barbershop. Within minutes the two men were talking, as they often do, about Italy: the weather in Naples, the food in Rome. A scholar of Italian opera and a particular authority on Donizetti, Verdi, and Rossini, Gossett said he looks forward to discussing “all things Italian” with Vigilante, who was 25 when he arrived in Chicago. “When I came here, I didn’t know how to speak English at all, not even to say ‘yes,’” Vigilante said. The first job he took was the one he has now, and he sent his daughter Grace to the College. She graduated in 1996 with a degree in psychology. “And now,” Vigilante joked, “I can’t win any arguments with her.”

Photo Razor blades and talcum powder—two staples of the Reynolds Club Barbershop.

One wonders if that’s a familiar feeling for Vigilante. Among his customers have been some of Chicago’s sharpest minds, whom he often knew only by first name, alumni like Saul Bellow (“now, he could tell a story”), Eugene Fama, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Charles Huggins (who received the telegram notifying him of his 1966 Nobel Prize while in the midst of a haircut), Wayne Booth, Edward Levi, Bernard Meltzer. “Some of these people stayed with the University—and stayed with the barbershop—their whole lives,” Vigilante said. He may do the same; a few years ago he decided to retire, but the departure proved temporary. Now he works two days a week, driving in from the southwest suburbs. “As long as I can move one foot in front of another,” he said, “I will be here.”

Mutluguler, who mans the other barber chair—once upon a time there were seven—is the shop’s only full-timer. Raised in Macedonia, he ran a barbershop in Ankara, Turkey, for years before moving to Chicago in 1980. More pensive and soft-spoken than Vigilante, with deep eyes and thickly knit brows, Mutluguler came to the Reynolds Club three years ago, but he’s cut hair in Hyde Park for two decades. “New faces every year,” he said.

After Gossett’s visit—“Now I look more like a human,” he said, arranging his hair in the mirror—the afternoon saw plenty more customers: an Egyptology PhD candidate taking a break from the Oriental Institute’s cold library, a second-year law student asking for a beard trim. “Come back before you’re a lawyer,” Vigilante called after him as he waved and left. Two international students sat in Mutluguler’s chair and chatted in Turkish with him as he cut their hair. Vigilante barbered a floppy-haired visiting lecturer from Mexico. “I hope you brought a warm coat,” he admonished. During a brief lull a few minutes later, Mutluguler swept the floor and Vigilante took a seat. “See the customers?” he said. “You can tell it’s a new year.”

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