By LINDA MOSS
William Greene Jr. has been cutting Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson’s hair for roughly 50 years, since the township official was a boy of about 7 years old or so.
Nonetheless, after all that time Jackson doesn’t address Greene by his first name.
“I still call him Mr. Greene, out of respect … to most people my age, and older, and generally younger, too, he’s just Mr. Greene, out of that level of respect,” Jackson said.
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Greene, a courtly fellow who still has a nice head of hair, owned and worked at Kayo’s Barber Shop for nearly seven decades, serving several generations of men in Montclair’s Fourth Ward and beyond.
Some view him as an icon in the local African-American community, a smart and genial role model whose barbershop was a spot to socialize and chat about everything from world affairs to politics to golf. His clientele included people from all walks of life, including doctors and lawyers.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” Greene said, but he demurred when asked who his favorite customer was.
“They were all first-class to me,” he said.
In March Greene, now 88, retired after suffering a stroke, which followed the heart attack he endured last October. His family is holding a retirement party for him June 3 at the Spain restaurant in Newark. Kimberly Barnes, 58, one of his children, said she expects about 50 people at the celebration.
“It’s probably my last hurrah,” Greene said.
Greene, a lifelong Montclair resident who recently moved to Newark, followed in the footsteps of his late father, William Greene Sr., who had barbershops in two different locations on Bloomfield Avenue before ending up at the current site at 224 Bloomfield Ave., not far from Lackawanna Plaza. The elder Greene was a pitcher who had played semi-pro baseball, and got the nickname “Kayo” for striking out batters. That’s how the small barbershop got its name, and the younger Greene for some time was referred to as Kayo, as well.
Greene Jr. worked at his father’s shop as a young teen, giving shoeshines, and in 1949 attended barber school in New York City. In 1950 at age 21, he came to his father’s shop in Montclair to cut hair.
“I fell in love with the work and the people … the atmosphere, the language, all these great conversations,” Greene said. “And I learned a lot as a young man, because the customers were older than I was.”
Greene eventually took over the shop from his father, and recently sold his stake to his partner, Frank Adé Pauleus, who now owns and runs Kayo’s. Greene, who cut Pauleus’s hair when he was a baby, became a mentor to the young man when he started working at Kayo’s at age 18.
“He really taught me everything,” Pauleus said, including how to run a business, do his taxes, hone a straight razor and polish up his haircutting skills.
“He was more of a life coach, in a sense … we became more than just partners, with him but more of like a father figure,” Pauleus said. “Because of what he taught me, I ended up touring with Whitney Houston in 1990.”
At the shop, which has its vintage Belmont barber chairs intact, customers relax, enjoy the chatter and catch up.
“Certainly in the African-American culture, the barbershop becomes a focal point, particularly for young men, to learn about the world and to get perspective on issues,” Jackson said. “It’s a great place for laughs. With all the characters in the barbershop of one kind or form or another it’s always a good laugh.”
“He (Greene) has such a great sense of the community and has been through multi-generations of granddads and dads and cutting their hair and knowing their families,” the mayor said. “He’s a guy you can talk to about anything — world affairs, golf, you name it, he can talk to you about it — from lofty things to the very mundane, Mr. Greene can give you very learned opinions and advice on a whole bunch of things.”
Greene and his daughter Barnes, a Montclair resident, have seen some of the “Barbershop” films, and he questioned some of their authenticity.
“We never ran like that,” Greene said. “Those guys aren’t even cutting hair. They’re just talking. I can tell by what they’re doing that they’re not cutting hair.”
But aspects of the movies, like “the lingo” and the aspirations of some of the characters ring true, according to Barnes.
“My father always tried to inspire the young men, like telling them ‘pull up your pants,’ to try to teach them to be productive,” she said.
According to Greene, “We always stressed education in here. That was one of our priorities. You had to go to school, because when I was a young man if you didn’t go to school and get good grades, you couldn’t take nobody’s daughter out. They would find out in church that you were a poor student and you’re on the hit list. You weren’t invited to the parties. So it made us strive for education.”
The business has survived ups and downs over the years, including the 1960s when African-American hairstyles changed and the Afro came into vogue.
“I remember us being in hard times,” Barnes said. “When the Afro came out, my father wasn’t cutting a lot because people weren’t cutting their hair. It hurt us income-wise.”
Last week when Greene and Barnes paid a visit to Kayo’s, Denise Davidson of Montclair stopped in. She would bring her son in more than 20 years ago when he was a boy for haircuts.
“I just know that every time that I come in here there’s a warmth, and there’s love, wisdom, compassion,” Davidson said. “You just want to kind of sit under all of that. He (Greene) embraces everyone. And we miss him. And we’re selfish and we want him to come back.”
Greene’s good deeds over the years have included giving haircuts to children with disabilities, said Barnes, an educator.
Certainly, Greene has seen a lot during his career.
“I remember when they assassinated John (F. Kennedy Jr.),” he said. “I was cutting hair when that happened. I remember the advancement when black became beautiful.”
Then when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Greene said, “People were disheartened, but we picked ourselves up and started anew.”
With Barack Obama, “Everybody was sort of exhilarated when he became president,” Greene said. “There was definitely discussion: How he was going to make out and the things he had to endure.”
In the shop there’s a photo of Obama sitting in a chair in a barbershop.
“I always wanted to cut his hair,” Greene said.