For Mike Earnhardt, it's closing time, but never quitting time

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 18, 2012

By Mark Wineka
GRANITE QUARRY – For 40 years, Mike Earnhardt’s favorite place was behind the middle chair at Salisbury’s Southgate Barbershop.He arrived there as an 18-year-old straight out of Charlotte Barber School, and he never left.Earnhardt became a master listener and conversationalist, as most barbers do. He talked with his customers about the weather, sports, politics, families and generally what was in the newspaper that morning or on television the night before.
All this banter came, of course, while his scissors clicked away and his electric clippers hummed closed to a customer’s ears and neckline.
His was a full-service chair – the haircut, shave, tonic and even a shampoo, if you wanted.
Earnhardt loved going to work and figured he would be cutting hair behind that middle chair until his body gave out.
That day came sooner than Earnhardt ever expected. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Slowly, day by day, his motor nerves began their inevitable deterioration
His arms no longer work. His legs aren’t strong enough to walk. His wife, Lisa, has become his full-time, devoted caregiver. He depends on her for feeding, bathing, dressing and moving from place to place.
He can’t describe what Lisa has meant to him.
Mike Earnhardt’s favorite spot has now become a corner on the back deck of the couple’s handsome, two-story house in Garland Place. It’s next to a small fountain and shaded by a giant Japanese cedar that seems to wrap its soft needles around him like a blanket.
From here he can watch the squirrels, birds and chipmunks – all busy in the backyard, where he planted most of the trees and designed the curved walkway that Lisa set brick by brick.
For the situation he is in, 61-year-old Mike Earnhardt is the most positive person you will ever meet.
And Lisa goes about her duties with a resolve rooted in their 35 years of marriage, love and friendship.
“I don’t know how they cope with it,” says Dana Bost, who sings in the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church choir with Lisa. “I see Mike at church, and he’s always smiling, and Mike always tells you he loves you.”
Lisa Earnhardt still makes choir practice every Wednesday night.
“If you ask her how she’s doing,” Bost adds, “she always says, ‘I’m doing fine.’ I’ve never heard her complain.”
About a year before he was officially diagnosed with ALS, Mike Earnhardt noticed he was having trouble with the scissors in his right hand. He wrote it off to carpal tunnel syndrome from all those years of repetitive motions with a scissors.
But the condition became troublesome enough that he quit using the scissors and did all of his cutting with the electric clippers. The day came when he finally went to see a hand specialist.
But Earnhardt soon was sent to a neurologist, and the ALS diagnosis came in March 2010. He had to quit the barbershop within about a month, and he sold his share of the business to 30-year friend and partner, Norvin Hillard.
At first, Mike probably benefited from his years of recreational cycling. Two months into his diagnosis, he could still travel 11 miles on his 10-speed. But his motor skills progressively worsened.
“ALS is kind of like a thief,” he says.
It kept robbing things daily, bit by bit.
There’s no treatment, cure or good idea why the disease chooses the people it does, and it seems to affect everyone differently, Mike notes.
Some victims lose their voice early on, but that hasn’t happened with Mike. He likes to think God wanted him to share some things about his faith, life and experiences.
“I have a cliche,” he says. “I feel like a horn without a toot. Everything is still here, but it doesn’t work.”
Hillard says his Southgate customers are continually asking about Earnhardt, wondering how he’s doing.
The pair first met in 1978, while Hillard was working at a barbershop in Landis. Hillard wasn’t thrilled when the Landis shop added a partition and established a beauty salon on the other side.
When Earnhardt called and asked whether Hillard might be interested in a chair at Southgate, Hillard said he would take a week’s vacation and use that week to work beside Earnhardt.
As they say in the movies, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
“For 30 years we were together,” Hillard says, “and we never had a cross word between us, working 3 feet apart, That’s very unusual.”
Mike Earnhardt grew up in Granite Quarry as the son of a bricklayer.
During his summers in high school, working for his father and uncle, Mike figured out that bricklaying as a profession was too hot, too cold, too wet and rough on a man’s hands. Besides, his father always discouraged him from getting into the business.
During a vocational day at East Rowan High School, Earnhardt and a friend, Dennis Sifford, were having a conversation about their future when Mike asked Sifford what he planned to do after graduation.
“I’m going to barber school,” Sifford said.
Having no other prospects or ambitions, Earnhardt attended Charlotte Barber School with his buddy. “I didn’t know the first thing about it,” Earnhardt says, “but it sounded a lot better than laying brick.”
It was an eight-month program, and Jesse Page, owner of Southgate Barbershop, hired Earnhardt once he graduated.
Earnhardt laughs, recalling that Sifford cut hair about six months before going into another line of work.
“Thank goodness I had good people to work on and good people to work with,” Earnhardt says. “I really started loving it. It grew on me, I guess.”
Southgate Shopping Center, located off Mooresville Highway near South Main Street, used to have a Food Town grocery store, where United Rentals is today, and a drugstore, which is now a pawn shop.
Early on, the location had a lot more traffic, Earnhardt notes, but it also happened to be the era when so many men – young men, in particular – were growing their hair long.
“Barbers were in a depression when I got into it,” he says.
But hair trends have a way of going in cycles. After a while, Earnhardt was back to flat tops and buzz cuts, building loyal customers along the way.
“A whole lot stayed with me – I was just blessed,” Earnhardt says.
Earnhardt says he always considered his customers as his bosses. And the great thing about cutting hair is, you get a new boss every 15 to 20 minutes.
He also learned as early as barber school that the customer is always right.
Earnhardt called himself a “hypocrat” – as is “hypocrite” – when it came to talking politics with the people in his chair. With one customer he could be a Republican; the next, a Democrat.
After 15 years, Page’s health was failing, and he sold the business to Earnhardt, who spent years working Tuesday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
But many of the days went to 7 p.m. or later, depending on how many customers were stacked up and waiting.
“You had a closing time, but not a quitting time,” Earnhardt says.
Earnhardt gave free haircuts to his late father, the bricklayer. Over 40 years, he would cut the hair of children of customers and then their grandchildren. He always told the new pastors at St. Paul’s Lutheran they could get a free haircut from him anytime.
Lisa Earnhardt says their neighbors have mown the couple’s lawn, and it seems as though every other day they are bringing something to eat or asking how they can help.
Friends, family and church members have been angels, Lisa says, but that’s a description they often save for her.
“I’m sorry to say the disease has brought me closer to them,” Bost says. “I hate it takes something like this for people to get close.”
Tim Deal says their church family at St. Paul’s is humbled and honored to dedicate this Saturday’s Cruise ‘n Barbecue (see box) to the Earnhardts.
“As his ALS has progressed,” Deal says, “Mike and Lisa have set an example of a positive attitude, courage and love for each other.”
Not long after Mike learned he had ALS, the couple renewed their wedding vows. She sees her role now as trying to keep things as normal as possible, for as long as possible.
If she goes to the grocery store, sometimes Mike will go along, staying in the car with their dog, Diesel. But going places has become difficult.
The one trip they insist on making every week is the Sunday service at church. And Lisa promises Mike will be at Saturday’s Cruise’n Barbecue.
Otherwise, look for him back home under that spreading Japanese cedar. He’ll be sure to tell you one thing:
He loves you.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or

Cruise ‘n Barbecue

When: Saturday, Oct. 20
What: To benefit Mike and Lisa Earnhardt
Where: St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 205 St. Paul’s Church Road
Sponsor: St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Men
Schedule of events:
— 8 a.m.-2 p.m. St. Paul’s Lutheran Women’s Bazaar
— noon-4:30 p.m. Port-A-Pit Chicken
— noon-3 p.m. Poker Cruise
— noon-4:30 p.m. — Cruise-in, music, door prizes, raffles and food
— 4:30 p.m. — Poker Cruise and Car Show awards, and raffles drawn.