Harry Walls, who was 78 when he died of congestive heart failure Nov. 21 at Washington Adventist Hospital, was a master barber, thank you very much -- not, repeat not, a hair stylist.
For nearly 40 years, customers who strolled into his downtown shop on 15th Street NW, two blocks north of the White House, came to have their hair trimmed the old-fashioned way. No dyeing, shampooing, styling or blow-drying at Walls Barber Shop, although many customers came for a shave, complete with thick foam and hot towels, the straight razor dexterously wielded by Walls himself.
After the expert haircut and the close shave, Walls delivered the piece de resistance. While a customer reclined in the chair, his face smooth and pleasantly tingly, he would be treated to a massage. With two small, electric massagers strapped to his hands, Walls would start with the legs and work up to the shoulders, easing away tensions a hard-charging downtown client might not have known he even had.
Customers also came for the camaraderie. Although the shop is in the heart of downtown, in a narrow space on the ground floor of the Lafayette Building, it was, and is, an impromptu gathering place and social club in the venerable barbershop tradition.
"This is a barbershop, not a hair salon," longtime customer Joe Davis, 46, said yesterday. "You come in here not trying to impress anyone. It's a place just to talk, to hang out with the fellows, talk about sports, women, relationships."
When Walls, who lived in Hyattsville, was in the shop, the talk was also about the stock market, the military, gardening, golf, politics. He had his opinions, strongly held, although customers of a different political bent rarely took offense.
Harry Martin Walls was born July 6, 1927, in Milton, Fla., a tiny town near Pensacola, and grew up in the Tampa area. A child of the Depression, he was a budding entrepreneur from an early age. At 7, he built his own wagon and used it to haul wood to sell to people in the neighborhood, a nickel a wagonload.
As a teenager, he got an after-school job rolling cigars at a Tampa cigar factory, which probably accounted for his lifelong cigar habit. He started smoking at 14 and didn't quit until his first heart attack. Before he cut a customer's hair, he would excuse himself and go into a back bathroom, where he would brush his teeth and gargle Listerine.
In the early 1940s, he got a job as a train dining-car waiter, which brought him to Washington. Deciding to stay, he found a job as a porter in a hotel near Union Station.
He joined the Air Force in 1946 and served as an engine installation assembler with the 99th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, a unit of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. "He loved airplanes," his wife said, and on the walls of his den -- near a photo of a long-haired cocker spaniel in a barber chair -- are paintings of World War II-era fighter planes and autographed photos of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and other Tuskegee Airmen.
He picked up rudimentary barbering skills in Tampa, and in the Air Force he cut hair during basic training. After his discharge in 1950, he got his barber's license and worked for several local shops. In 1967, he bought the storefront on 15th Street from a white owner who had been in business since 1929. "Blacks used to own the majority of barber shops downtown in the 1940s and back further," he told The Washington Post in 1983. "Now I am the only one."
Black people may have been the owners, but their clients were exclusively white. Before Walls bought the shop, an African American could not get his hair cut there, unless he agreed to go into a backroom, behind a closed door, or come to the shop at night, after regular hours. Walls changed that policy immediately.
His customers over the years were black and white, known and unknown. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson dropped by when he was in town; so did former Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr., Post publisher Philip L. Graham, and figures from the Johnson administration and its successors.
For years, Walls complained about the demise of the traditional barbershop, even as he acknowledged that traditional barbers needed to broaden their skills. He could do the styling, but for the most part, he stuck with the old ways.
For 38 years, he got up at 5 every morning, six days a week, came from his home and started cutting hair, sometimes greeting his first customer before the sun came up.
"That was his life: his shop," said his wife, JoAnn Payne Walls.
Two years ago, when "the mayor of 15th Street" realized he couldn't go on, he sold the shop to one of his barbers, Dale Simmons, who was 26 years old at the time.
Simmons regularly called his mentor for advice until just a few weeks ago.
Occasionally, they talked about hiring, and Walls would remind him about the delicate mix of barber personalities in a shop, how customers appreciate a choice between the loquacious and the low-key.
Walls had confidence in his young protege, although he hated to let go. Even after his heart attacks and assorted illnesses, even after being hospitalized in a coma for nine days a couple of years ago, Walls wanted to be downtown. "My customers are waiting on me," he told his wife.
His marriages to Katherine Thomas Walls and Maggie McCain Walls ended in divorce.
A daughter from his second marriage, Juanita Walls, died in 1986, and a daughter from his first marriage, Rochelle Walls, died in 1993.
Survivors include his wife of 18 years, of Hyattsville; five children from his first marriage, Diane Walls Cole of Midway City, Calif., Deborah Walls Davis of Odenton, Sandra Walls of Lanham and Pamela Walls and Harry Walls, both of the District; a stepson from his third marriage, Lionel Payne of Columbia, Tenn.; two sisters; 17 grandchildren; 28 great-grandchildren; and four great-great-grandchildren.