WATERLOO — Werner Meyer was a senior at Wapsie Valley High School in 1966 when he was assigned to give a speech on a career he wanted to pursue after graduation.
Meyer drew a blank, so he decided to do some exploring. He checked out a book from the library on various occupations, flipped open the book at random and let fate determine his future — as a barber.
After graduating from the Cedar Rapids Barber College on Oct. 1, 1967, he wasted no time going to work. His first day at Zarifis Barber Shop was Oct. 5, 1967, when the cost of a haircut there was $2.25.
Now, at 69, Werner will mark his 50th anniversary, not only as a barber but of 50 years of cutting hair in the same chair. Haircuts are now $15.
“I never dreamt in my life I’d make 50 years,” he said.
The barber shop opened in 1956 near Rath Packing Co. before moving to 2124 Kimball Ave. in 1966.
Meyer said the year 1967 started off great, but after a large employee strike at John Deere in Waterloo, business started to slow down.
Then in the 1970s, “the long-hair trend really hurt business,” he said.
And the 1980s brought even more hard times for barbers like Meyer.
Rath Packing Co., which at one time was one of the largest employers in Waterloo, closed in 1984, and John Deere underwent a long series of layoffs and shutdowns.
“Those were really tough, lean years. Your income dropped drastically in the ’80s, oh, my, yes,” he said. “Watching what you spend, we slowly made it through it.”
Things started looking up toward the end of the decade, and “overall it’s been good ever since.”
Meyer and Ed Halvorson, who has worked at the shop for 47 years, purchased Zarifis Barber Shop from Jim Zarifis in 2000.
Meyer said he thought about changing shops a time or two, but his repeat customers kept him put.
“I have some who have been coming here since I started, still have quite a few of guys from Rath Packing who are very elderly,” Meyer said.
About 85 percent of the clients are regulars, according to Meyer.
“They get what they want. If they get what they want, they’re going to keep coming back,” he said.
And there is no shortage of conversation inside the shop. Jerry Lahr, who recently moved to Waterloo from California, discussed his time in the military with Meyer on Thursday as he was getting a trim.
“When I went into the Army, my first haircut was 24 seconds,” Lahr said.
The two also discussed their shared admiration for toy tractors, time spent on dairy farms and riding 50 miles on the bus to school.
“A lot of my customers became very good friends. Sometimes they become closer to you than even your own relatives,” he said.
As for the future, Meyer says he will keep going as long as his health lets him.
Over the years he has survived cancer, emergency surgery, several heart issues and two new knees. He also has happily shared 45 years of marriage with his wife, Rebecca, three children and several grandchildren.
“Fifty years went by fast,” he said. “I’m just thankful for all my customers who keep coming.”