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Browning hangs up clippers for final time

Greg Mast
The Ottawa Herald
Rex Browning relaxes in the chair he has commanded for the past 60 years before retiring this past Saturday.

Rex Browning is a people person, a man respected for his high character.

Browning’s love of family has been evident throughout his life. He included them in his business endeavors. He was an Ottawa Main Street icon for more than 60 years before retiring this past Saturday.

Rex’s Barber Shop withstood the test of time. Browning opened the shop in 1960.

Browning semi-retired a few years ago, handing the reigns of the “family shop” to his daughter, Suzanne. Browning, 81, hung up the clippers for good after a long career.

“It was never a job,” Browning said. “It was a fun life. I enjoy being around people. It is a good place to be (on Main Street).”

Browning was not just a person who cut hair, but somebody the public trusted for his sincerity and keeping conversations private.

Jean Browning, his wife, said he would not even reveal certain conversations with her.

“Whenever they would talk to him about things that were personal, he always said, ‘I have two ears, one to go in and one to go out,’ ” she said. “They could trust he wouldn’t (tell others). With all the people that came in, you made real relationships. It was not like come in and get a haircut and be gone. They were real relationships.

"Whenever they would come in and have a death in the family, they always wanted to talk to him about it.”

Browning said he never once thought about leaving the business or Ottawa throughout his 60-year career.

“People accepted me,” he said. “I never thought about anything else. I grew up halfway between here and Lawrence. This is as far south as I got. I was making money. I enjoyed talking to the people.”

Browning learned how to how to cut and style all the hair fads but was known for his flat tops.

“When I first started I did lots and lots of flat tops,” he said. “I had to learn how to do the long hair in the '60s. I used to cut a lot of women’s hair.”

A friendly lure

Browning, who grew up on a farm in north Franklin County, was not sure of his future in high school.

Browning, a 1957 graduate of Appanoose High School, was talked into attending barber school by a friend.

“He went to school a couple of years before I got out,” he said. “He seemed to enjoy it. I thought that is what I will do too. On Nov. 4, 1957, is when I started right out of high school. I was 17. At that time, you had to have an apprenticeship. I did that in Kansas City.”

Browning returned to Ottawa in 1960 as a married man and with a career.

Rex’s Barber Shop has always been a family business. Rex Browning, second from left, is joined in the business by granddaughter Allie Browning, daughter Suzanne Watts, and grandson Riley Browning.

Browning bought into a partnership in 1960 with Harold Bones, who was a barber school classmate.

He said he paid $50.

“Kansas State Bank owned that building and tore it down to put in a drive-thru window,” he said.

He spent four years at the N. Main Street location.

“At that time, my brother came to work with me at Rex’s,” Browning said.

He purchased a building at 116 S. Main and spent more than 30 years there. He also purchased the 118 S. Main property and rented it for 15 years. In 1999, he expanded the business with Suzanne and moved next door.

Browning said he purchased the building they are in now as a spare so he would never be without a place to cut hair.

Later, his brother-in-law joined him in the business.

A family shop

Not only did generation of families come for hair cuts, but he made it his family business.

His son, Russ, joined after high school in the 1980s. Soon afterward, Suzanne joined her brother and father.

Later, daughter-in-law Wendy was in the fold. That led her children and Browning’s grandchildren, Riley and Allie, to follow in the family footsteps.

“We have always had part of our family in the shop,” Jean said.

Browning said it was nice to work with his family.

“Very proud of all of them,” he said. “They were always in here with me.”

The founding father of the business may have hung up the clippers, but the Browning influence still lives on Ottawa’s Main Street.