The Barber in the Park: A Man Called Joe Helps the Homeless and Inspires a Community

Known as 'Joe the Barber,' the 82-year-old has been cutting hair for 25 years

ByABC News
May 25, 2013, 10:00 AM

May. 26, 2013 — -- To most people, they are down on their luck, homeless and destitute. But to Anthony Cymerys, they are simply people in his community who need a trim.

Known as Joe the Barber, the 82-year-old retired businessman has been cutting hair for a quarter-century, charging nothing more than a thank you, and maybe a hug.

Every Wednesday, Cymerys sets up at Bushnell Park in Hartford, Conn., toting a folding lawn chair and a car battery to power his clippers. And then the line forms.

"It's not what you might expect," Cymerys told ABC News. "People from all walks of life can end up there."

Cymerys was drafted into the Army in 1954, just after the Korean War ended. Serving for 2 years, he never saw combat, but always feels humbled when he's surrounded by other veterans.

So for Cymerys, it's personal. About 20 percent of homeless men are veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

"At an event, I remember them calling all the veterans up to the stage. Those poor guys that went to Vietnam and Korea, God bless them all," Cymerys said. "I hate to tell you how many veterans have shown up for a haircut."

One of them, an older man named Jose Johnson, has been stopping by Cymerys's park-side barbershop for more than 20 years.

In the Vietnam War, shrapnel hit Johnson's face, maiming his forehead and damaging his left eye. When he sits down in Cymerys's chair, the barber carefully cuts the wounded veteran's bangs to hide his imperfection.

"One day, I finished Jose's haircut, and he kissed me on the top of my head," Cymerys said. "He said, 'Don't hit me; I did that because I love you.'"

In a grand gesture, Johnson -- whose father has been dead for nearly two decades, and left him with little more than his clothes -- removed his own father's shirt off his back and presented it to Cymerys as a way of saying "thank you" for all the haircuts over the years. Though it was missing a button or two, Cymerys graciously accepted the gift.

The next time Johnson came to the park, Cymerys was wearing that shirt.

"The endorphins come out of me when I come home," Cymerys said. "It's all about being kind to people, and it works three ways. You feel good, the person you're doing it for feels good, and people that are watching feel good."

Cymerys began cutting hair when the YMCA across the park let him use its facilities. But the building has since closed to make way for luxury condominiums, and that's when Cymerys started setting up shop on the grass. A few years ago, he was nearly driven out of park grounds when a security guard from the adjacent Connecticut State Capitol building threatened to call the police. The incident ended when the community rallied around him, and he was allowed to continue his work.

A self-proclaimed volunteer addict, Cymerys has spent decades contributing to other notable causes as well.

Since the 1980s, he has delivered food through Meals on Wheels, and taken day-old bread from supermarkets to senior homes and shelters. He also donates blood twice a month through the Red Cross and runs the blood drive at his church.

"I'm like the Salvation Army of Windsor," Cymerys said of his hometown. "God blesses me every day. This is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life."

While helping members of his community, he also takes care of his 96-year-old sister, Julie, and his 98-year-old brother, Tony, who live with him. Also a veteran, Tony completed more than 50 missions across the battlefields of North Africa and later Italy during World War II.

Sometimes, those people who are watching are brought to tears, and sometimes they cry together. But they aren't tears of sadness.

"You have grown men, 6 feet 5 inches tall, kissing you and squeezing you half to death," Cymerys said. "You can't buy that."