June 22, 2016
Benny Benefiel retires after 50 years as Ball State’s barber. The father of two says it’s the students that he’ll miss the most.
Benny Benefiel has a life he hadn’t planned for.
After finishing barber college in the early 1960s, a young Benefiel returned to his hometown near Gaston, Indiana, to claim a job he’d been promised. But the shop owner who had encouraged Benefiel to get trade certified wasn’t quite good for his word.
“When I came back, the guy just sort of apologized, but he didn’t need me as much as he thought he was going to,” Benefiel said. “I didn’t have a job.”
So with luck driving and chance coming along for the ride, Benefiel headed into the big city to find work. In those days in Muncie, young men, mostly, headed to Ball, Delco-Remy and Warner Gear to get jobs they planned to keep for decades. But Benefiel headed elsewhere, following a red, white and blue–striped pole that gave him a career he never imagined would span more than 50 years.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t meet someone that makes you think of someone else you’ve met on the way,” he said.
The world, it seems, came to see him in the basement of L.A. Pittenger Student Center. Students, faculty, community members, administrators, even famous personalities on campus for other events have all entrusted their heads to Benefiel’s steady hand. Thousands upon thousands of haircuts given, complete with a straight-razor clean up, expertly offered by a man who learned to get really good at listening.
“Some of the things that have been said in these chairs, there’s a part of you that wants to say, ‘You ought not be doing those things.’ But of course, that’s not what the kids needed,” he said. “They just needed me to listen. They told me things they probably didn’t tell their moms and dads right away.”
Short hair morphed into decades of long hair and back again. Benefiel had gentlemen early on in his career who never missed a cut. “That was kind of a status thing, you know,” he said. “It was a different era. There were a couple dozen guys when I first started out who would come in each week, but everybody came in every two weeks.”
From famous comedians to local businessman to faculty and students, Benny Benefiel has earned the trust of anyone who sat down in his chair. Benefiel’s retirement is an end of an era, his friends and patrons say.
He’s been standing behind the classic, now-red leather chairs (they started out green and brown) long enough to have given sons the same first cut he gave their fathers. He’s seen celebrities come through his door and take a seat in his chair, and he’s never fussed when a student has forgotten a wallet and was unable to pay.
“In my 50 years of doing this, I bet I’ve had less than a handful of kids who didn’t come back to pay me,” he said. “I never worried about it. Heck, most the time I would forget about it until the kids would come back. But they were good kids, and they came back.”
Now as Ball State’s longest-running barber prepares for retirement, it’s those kids he thinks about the most.
“One of the fun things is, that when kids first come to school, they really are kids, you know,” he said. “But you see them grow, mature. And when they leave, they are leaving as adults, young adults. I always kind of liked watching that.
“I worried as I got older if the kids would stop coming — maybe they would think I was an old fuddy-duddy. But I guess they never did, because they kept coming.”
It’s now those kids who wonder what they’ll do without Benefiel.
“He’s an iconic figure here,” said Ben Simons, a physics graduate student who’s had Benefiel cut his hair for about the last four years. “It’s disappointing to see him go, but I want him to enjoy his retirement.”
“There’s nobody like him," he said. "He’s an important, unique part of Ball State.”
— Steve Shondell
retired head women’s volleyball coach
Simons said it’ll take awhile to come up with a Plan B on the haircut front. But he’s more philosophical when he thinks of the legacy Benefiel quietly created.
“He’s a very humble man,” Simons said. “He probably doesn’t want to admit he’s going to be missed as much as he is, or admit to just what he means to Ball State.”
Steve Shondell, the recently retired head women’s volleyball coach, used to make Benefiel’s shop a stop on the prospective-player tour route, wanting his young athletes to appreciate the tradition and dedication captured within that space. Shondell agreed it was the end of a special era.
“There’s nobody like him,” he said. “He’s an important, unique part of Ball State.”
Benefiel is headed south, where he’ll hang a “Gone fishin’ ” sign on his door each morning before heading out to spend his days on the water, looking for bass and whatever else Georgia waters hold. In a few days, when Benefiel closes his shop for the last time, his player-autographed basketball and a black-and-white photo of him cutting Red Skelton’s hair will go with him. So, too, he said, a lifetime of memories.
“The things that really get you are when you have someone come in and say, ‘You gave me my first haircut.’ Or there are guys who drive in from Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and other places just to get a haircut, and they wanted to come back before I left.
“When you step back and think about that, boy, that’s what really gets you.”