Clarence Thornton, 81, longtime city barber

February 26, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Clarence Thornton didn't cut designs. He wouldn't shear initials or triple parts in the hair of the heads he barbered. He wasn't into creating a new hairdo.

Instead, for more than four decades, Mr. Thornton cut hair in a quite unimaginative manner. He'd trim a little off the top and sides, and give the mustache a trim -- to the satisfaction of thousands of customers.

"He was from the old school. He cut hair plain and uninspiring," said Lonnel White, a regular at the shop Mr. Thornton operated on Pennsylvania Avenue from the early 1940s until the mid-1980s.

Mr. Thornton, 81, died Sundayof heart failure at his home in the Sandtown community of West Baltimore. Family members said that he had not been ill and that he died within hours of giving his final haircut -- to a nephew who needed a trim.

"If I know him, he would have tried to plan going out like this," said his grandson, Jerome Dobson of Baltimore. "He probably would want to go while standing in the barbershop with cut hair all around his feet and on his smock."

Although he retired in the 1980s, he still cut the hair of friends and family. Payment wasn't important to him, just the continued friendship of longtime buddies, his grandson said.

"I think he got so used to being around people just jawing that he missed it when he retired," Mr. Dobson said. "Cutting a few heads every now and then kept him happy and active in his retirement."

A lifelong resident of West Baltimore, Mr. Thornton married Gladys Spicer in 1945. She died in 1965.

Mr. Thornton held an assortment of jobs before he graduated from barber school in the mid-1930s. He worked as a staff barber at other shops before he opened his own.

Mr. Thornton's shop -- a no-name business that was identifiable by its barber pole outside -- usually was crowded with men who did not want a haircut, just a place to spend a few hours.

The television played continually -- seemingly always tuned to a sporting event or soap opera -- and the buzzing of barber clippers hummed endlessly.

"People just like to come in and pass the time of day. He was good at making you feel good whether you wanted a cut or not," said Edwin Allandson, a friend. "He had a steady group who came in for cuts and those who came in to spend the day."

Mr. Thornton also cut the hair of celebrities who came to Baltimore when Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the entertainment hubs on the East Coast. Redd Foxx and Peg Leg Bates were among the notables who got a haircut at his shop.

"He cut their hair the same way he cut everybody else's. He gave everyone the star treatment," Mr. Dobson said.

Mr. Thornton cut a woman's hair for the first time in 1963, recalled Jesse Williams, who lived near the barbershop.

"It was a week after [President] Kennedy was killed and a lady came into the shop and sat in the waiting chairs," Mr. Williams said. "He thought she was waiting for someone because women didn't come to barbershops for haircuts."

The woman already had closely cropped hair. She sat in Mr. Thornton's chair and asked for a trim.

"He didn't know what to do. He looked at her and she looked at him and said, 'What's the problem?' " Mr. Williams said. "He cut it, but I think he was afraid he would hurt her or somehow damage her looks.

"His hands were shaking and after each little bit of hair he cut he'd ask her how was he doing. It must have taken close to an hour for a 15-minute haircut."

Private services are scheduled for Friday.

He is survived by a son, Kenneth Thornton of Baltimore; and three grandchildren.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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