Sam Daniels held a steady hand three feet off the floor of his Hilltop barbershop, and laughed.
Ive been cutting hair since I was about this high, he said. And the last haircut I gave was Saturday to a Mr. Glover.
A month away from his 89th birthday, Daniels has been cutting hair in Tacoma since 1951 and has owned his shop, Sam and Terrys, since 1958. He founded it with best friend Larry Terry. It was the first black-owned barbershop in the city.
Daniels has lost his business partner and a wife, good friends and customers. And without a strong faith in God and an almost innocent love of people he might be a different man.
There are a lot of people Ive known who are on the other side of that wall now, Daniels said. Twenty years ago, I had regular customers every week, dozens. Now, not many.
Yet the shop remains open and Daniels is still committed to the place thats had to relocate three or four times, yet always stayed on the Hilltop.
He and his fellow Texas-born partner left a shop theyd worked in and opened their own 55 years ago.
We wanted a barbershop with a family atmosphere, where your wife and kids could come in and we wanted to train other barbers, Daniels said. Wed get barbers right out of school and work with them. We trained barbers who opened their own shops, up in Federal Way, other places.
My grandson has a shop up in Bellevue. He spent four or five years with me.
We gave people jobs a lot of people and we had a lot of good barbers come through our shop.
From the beginning, there were rules, and the first was this: no cursing.
Willie Stewart was a private at Fort Lewis in 1959 when he had his first haircut from Daniels.
I know hes still cutting hair in 2013, Stewart said, because he cut mine nine days ago.
I never heard a foul word come out of his mouth, and for years he had a full-time day job and would work nights at the barbershop. Ill tell you this: If you were in his chair four, five times, Sam would be at your funeral service if you died.
Daniels nodded. He cared about everyone he knew, and though he never promoted it, would visit customers in the hospital and cut their hair for free. If asked, hed do the same for funeral homes and for the clergy.
Sam never charged ministers, Stewart said.
Former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss remembers Sam and Terrys in its heyday, and not just for the haircuts.
So much happened at that shop. They made a barbershop a home and youd go there and everyone would tell stories, Moss said. Sam was not one of the guys youd think of as actively involved or as loud as me, but he let the shop be a place to talk politics, race, whatever.
He was a facilitator.
Born in Henderson, Texas, Daniels sailed aboard the USS Essex during World War II and was discharged in Bremerton. A sister had moved to the Northwest, and his mother visited often.
By 1950, the entire Daniels clan had moved here, except Daniels, who didnt like the rain and told his father he wouldnt relocate without a job. His father found him one a civil service job working at the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot.
Daniels worked there, at Fort Lewis, and then at the prison on McNeil Island, eventually advancing to a carpenter job. From 1951 until 1979, he would get off work and head for the barbershop.
He was a father figure to a lot of young men, Moss said.
Another friend, Tom Dixon, was the president of the Tacoma Urban League.
Sam was an adviser and may be the best man Ive ever known, Dixon said. He put a roof on my house in 95. Does that roof leak? No, it does not.
Daniels is still going, cutting hair at the shop at 1110 11th Street that employs four other barbers all men hes trained. He no longer builds storage huts or roofs on the side.
My hands arent as strong as they were. When I was 155 pounds, I was fast with a hammer, he said. The last three years, Ive had arthritis in my back, and I found out three months ago its bone cancer. Im still moving, and Im not on pain pills yet.
He has plans this summer to visit Texas.
Theres a teacher there, Elmer Hill, who boarded with us and taught me a lot, he said. Hes 110 years old. Ive seen a lot of changes in my life. I was raised in the South, where black people had to sit in the back of the bus.
He points at the only portrait inside Sam and Terrys. Its not of him or his partner, who died in the mid-1990s. Its of President Barack Obama.
Never thought Id live to see a black president, Daniels said.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638