Howard Henry Dignen, 80, Annapolis barber for five decades, alderman

October 29, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Howard Henry "Dig" Dignen, an Annapolis barber for five decades who shaved the heads of Naval Academy plebes and was twice elected to the Annapolis city council, died Sunday of cancer complications at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was 80.

Born in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where his father was stationed in the Navy, Mr. Dignen had lived in Annapolis since age 8. He attended Annapolis High School and learned his trade from well-known barber Irving "Izzy" Wolfe.

Family members said he got his barbering license a few months after his 16th birthday, and gave his last trim three months ago. He worked six days a week -- five at the Naval Academy and a half-day in Eastport.

During World War II, Mr. Dignen joined the Army's 29th Division and landed in the second wave at Normandy on D-Day.

"In the first wave we lost over 80 percent of the people, so we had to bring in the second wave pretty quick. Our wave lost about 50 percent of our people," Mr. Dignen told The Sun in 1998. "We climbed the cliff and [pushed] pole charges -- 20-foot poles with three sticks of dynamite on the end -- into the gun turrets and set them off to blow from within."

He spent his first night in France in a muddy hole. "I was scared. You know the old saying, `There's no atheist in a foxhole'? That was true," he said in the interview.

Forty-five men in his platoon of 60 died in the first two weeks. For many years, Mr. Dignen carried a photo of the dozen who reached the town of St. Lo, where they posed beneath a double-trunk tree.

Mr. Dignen attained the rank of sergeant and was awarded two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the French Medal of Freedom.

"The Naval Academy wanted to pay his expenses to return to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day," said his son, Michael J. Dignen of Chester Springs, Pa. "He declined to go, but was often a guest speaker at academy classes where he spoke of his war experience."

After the war, Mr. Dignen returned to Annapolis and opened a two-chair, $1.25-per-cut barbershop at the city market. He cut the hair of fishermen, sailors and the occasional politician, such as then-House Speaker Marvin Mandel, who as governor appointed him to his Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.

A Democrat, he was elected as the 5th Ward alderman in 1964 and re-elected in 1968. Newspaper stories commented on his ability to win a large number of votes. He pushed for tougher liquor license laws in Annapolis.

During the Vietnam War, he disagreed with protesters who he said were "aiding and abetting the enemy."

When downtown Annapolis became a weekend tourist attraction, Mr. Dignen's shop rent rose and his lease was taken over by the Dockside Restaurant, which was owned by a friend who hired Mr. Dignen as a manager. He left in 1978 when he developed a seafood allergy.

That year he saw a newspaper ad: "Barber wanted, U.S. Naval Academy." He took the job, and averaged 40 to 50 heads a day until last summer.

"For 20 years, thousands of newcomers to the Naval Academy have sat for two or three reflective minutes in Dignen's chair -- a kind of portal between their old and new lives. After Dignen, newly sheared plebes in a snake-like line pick up their uniforms and emerge at the checkout desk as members of the Navy," the 1998 Sun story said.

On a typical day, he ran Oster electric clippers over scalps, swished necks clean with a boar-bristle brush and said a few kind words.

"I really enjoy these kids down here. I like to talk to them. This is supposed to be the cream of the crop. I discuss everything with them -- sports, politics, world situations," he said in the interview.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Eastport United Methodist Church, 926 Bay Ridge Ave., where he was a member.

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 56 years, Bonnie Jean Dignen; a daughter, Christine E. Moheiser of Annapolis; two brothers, Warren Dignen of Destin, Fla., and Herman Dignen of Dorchester Heights; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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