LAKE WILSON — Nearly 60 years ago at the Arkota Ballroom in Sioux Falls, a young dancer from rural South Dakota named Virginia noticed a Minnesota man in part because of his tie tack.
It was in the form of a small scissors.
“I’m a beautician,” Virginia told Jack Van Eck.
“Well,” said Jack, “I’m a barber.”
Says Virginia: “We just kind of clicked from then on.”
The laughter from both at this memory brightens a delightful abode just off Minnesota 30 in this small Murray County hamlet that has served as home base for Jack and Virginia since 1965.
Their bond is much stronger than a common cause of hair care. And that legacy, along with a love for this resilient community of about 230, is what distinguishes them.
For years now, Jack has been the only working male barber left in Murray County. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
Keeping on cuttin’
“I started barber school in 1963,” Jack said. “It was a six-month term. From there I came back to Lake Wilson. George the Barber (Gowin) wanted to retire, so I apprenticed under him.
“At that time there were at least a dozen (male) barbers in Murray County. I knew there were five in three different shops in Slayton, two in Fulda, and Hadley even had a part-time barber. Iona had one from Wilson’s who would come in and cut hair at night. Currie had a full-time barber. He was Old Pete.”
Only Jack, who purchased the shop from George the Barber, is still in business. It’s been that way for a decade or more.
“I’m a dinosaur,” he said, laughing. “Hope I can keep going for a while.”
But Jack’s Barber Shop on Lake Wilson’s Main Street is quiet these days. He was injured badly in a fall several months ago, an accident during which he fractured his right elbow and left wrist.
One afternoon last month Jack used a cane to move about his comfortable home while Virginia, who has been filling in for her husband out of the beauty shop she’s maintained for years in a room off her kitchen, worked the clippers.
Just a few short months ago, Jack maintained regular hours at his shop. Even so, he sees no reason to refer to his work in the past tense.
“I’m not nearly as busy as I used to be,” Jack said. Then, he smiled. “But I’m not as young as I used to be, either. Back in the ’60s and until the early ’70s, the Chandler Air Base was in operation. And there was an abundance of young men who had to have haircuts. So I was quite busy then.”
The best thing about his job?
“The people,” he grins.
And not the gossip?
“Barber shops are notoriously famous for spreading gossip,” Jack says. “I tried not to be one of those. Because usually the truth, by the time it got to the barber shop, was no longer the same thing when it got across the street.”
A love for his hometown
Jack’s work in his hometown has never ended at quitting time. He was a charter member of the Lake Wilson Lions Club and for many years has been on the city council, serving as mayor for quite a while.
Lake Wilson is close to his heart.
Jack, 80, was born on a farm between Lake Wilson and Chandler, delivered by midwives who were his grandmothers.
“I moved here from Iona when I was in the seventh grade,” he says. “It’s a special place.”
It’s also one with a history of heartache.
“The whole Main Street burned down on May 11 of 1911,” Jack said. “Then, in 1992, a tornado came along and destroyed 10 or 12 homes in town and did a number on some businesses. And in 2004, the fire hall exploded and the grain elevator was somewhat destroyed in a propane explosion.”
The three Lake Wilson disasters did not claim lives but caused millions and millions of dollars in damage.
“But each time,” Jack said, “the town came back.”
Jack, who graduated from Lake Wilson High in 1957, marvels at the town’s toughness.
“What hurt us the most was when the high school closed (Chandler and Lake Wilson students now attend Murray County Central in Slayton),” he said. “We had great sports teams. I’ve always loved athletics.”
Just like he’s always loved Virginia.
A dynamic duo
On this day, as Jack sat next to where his wife of 55 years cut hair, their affection for each other was obvious.
“It’s been a very good marriage,” Jack said. Then, his eyes twinkled.
“Probably it’s sustained as long as it has because I worked downtown and she worked here.”
Jack is on the mend, but elbow and wrist injuries are not what a barber needs. He hurt something else, too, in the fall.
“I also suffered a severe case of wounded pride,” Jack said with a laugh.
Make no mistake, though, he’s not retiring. The sign on Jack’s Barber Shop now reads “Closed Until Further Notice,” but Jack hopes to one day return to work.
“It certainly is my intention,” Jack said. “But I’m just not physically able to do it yet.”
Then he paused and looked at Virginia.
“I miss the people,” he said.
He and Virginia have two daughters, three grand-daughters and two great-granddaughters. Virginia, who grew up about 135 miles west of Lake Wilson near Wessington Springs, S.D., has no intentions of retiring, either.
“I’ve liked doing hair since I was a little kid,” she said, smiling. “And I still like it. If I can make somebody happy and like the way they look, that’s my thing. And now lately I’ve enjoyed cutting some men’s hair.”
It was suggested that men might be more difficult to please than women when it comes to haircuts.
“No, no, no,” Virginia responded, laughing.
The extra work load in recent hasn’t been easy for her. Always a helpful partner, Virginia aids Jack even more now.
And, it turns out, that started before they were married.
Upon first meeting her future hair-cutting husband at the Arkota Ballroom, Virginia might’ve assumed Jack could also cut a rug properly.
“Well,” Virginia said, and then paused. “Let me tell you a little story.”
Their loud laughter echoed.
“I gave him lessons,” she said. “We helped each other.”
The work continues, and the community of Lake Wilson is the better for it.