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(E) Croatian barber became area institution
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  02/1/2003 | Media Watch | Unrated
(E) Croatian barber became area institution
Distributed by CroatianWorld


Retiring Croatianbarber became area institution


If time on the job and reliability count for anything, John Sobol made a case for himself as Wilmette’s Hardest Working Man. 

When Sobol opened his barbershop in 1947, President Harry Truman hadn’t yet sent troops to Korea. Sobol didn’t set his clippers down for good until August, and for every one of 55 years you could get a haircut at his shop at Fourth and Linden while talking about baseball, family, or nothing of any importance at all. 

Sobol, who turned 81 last week, had become an institution in the east side neighborhood among several generations of customers, and left reluctantly due to health problems. 

“I was so lucky. I was there almost 56 years and for 45 years I never missed a day of work,” said Sobol, who sold the shop to another operator. 

Longtime customers fondly recall John’s Barber Shop not only as a place for at trim, but a kind of informal men’s club. 

Sobol was already well established when Bill Gourley of Wilmette, then a teacher at Loyola Academy, began going there in the early 1960s. One of Sobol’s seven children was in Gourley’s class. 

“He’s a neat guy. He had a big encyclopedia on baseball. When somebody would get in a argument about that, they'd call him up to settle it. He had some of the greatest comic books you saw in your life,” Gourley said. “He'd talk about his trips to Door County like people going to Europe or Africa. You felt like this guy really enjoys his life.”

Croatian roots 

Sobol’s story began in Hreljin, Croatia, a mountainous region in the former Yugoslavia near the Italian border, where he was born as Zlatan Ivan Sobol. Sobol said his father had come to the United States earlier and worked in copper mines in Minnesota and advised his sons to find a less grueling career. 

Two of Sobol’s older brothers had established themselves as barbers in Rogers Park, and after making the trip to the states, he decided to follow in their footsteps. His father had hope he would remain behind to look after family interests, but Sobol made the trip in 1936 at age 14. 

He took a job at the Chicago Athletic Club as a busboy and went to Joyce Kilmer School for a year to learn English. 

“Here I was, 14 1/2, and I was in the first grade for English,” Sobol said. 

At 16, he went to barber school. As one of the older licensed trades, it demanded a fairly long instruction and apprentice program, followed by testing. 

“It took me quite a while to do, something like 1,800 hours. I think it took me a year and a half, then you take a test. Then two years later you take another test,” Sobol said. “You had a free room in the back of the shop. You would get the bums, the street people. They would go in the back and wait. They got a free haircut and shave and you got to learn on live heads.”

Other skills 

He also followed another interest in engineering and communications, and during World War II worked for the Army Air Corps repairing radios and working in control towers. But the war ended before he was to be shipped overseas. 

He had another skill, dancing, that led him to meet his future wife, Rosemary Kelly, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago and went back to cutting hair. 

Sobol bought his Wilmette shop after learning of the sale through another barber and friend of his brothers. At that time, the El train ran from Chicago to Linden Avenue for 10 cents and most of west Wilmette was farm field or brand new development. 

Sobol said he had to consult a former customer on what his rates were in those days. 

“She said when the haircuts went from 75 cents to $1, my boys got real short crew cuts,” Sobol said. 

For most of his career, he had one and sometimes two helpers and catered to boys after school, businessmen and other area residents. He usually worked from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and was known to make house calls, going to priests at Loyola and housebound clients on off days. 

“When I got there, we worked half a day on Wednesday. About 20 years ago, they changed to Monday. That was by the union,” Sobol said. “When the barbers union was around, they were very strict on the hours and what you charged. If you charged too little, they'd come by and break your windows.”

Famous customers 

Sobol encountered many notable people over the years, both as neighbors and customers. Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse lived nearby and made the barber shop a regular stop. Other customers included Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz and the Wrigleys. A partner in a nearby pie and ice cream place, David Edgerton, went on to launch Burger King. 

Kraft Foods founder J.L. Kraft, was not a customer, but lived nearby and had a driver who came to Sobol’s shop. One day, when Sobol asked why the car was sagging, the driver showed him a trunk filled with gravel. 

“Kraft had a hobby. He made jewelry for his friends with some kind of blue stone,” Kraft said. 

In the 1980s, U2 guitarist Edge stopped in while visiting friends in the area, and Sobol made sure to get an autograph for one of his younger daughters. 

“Most of my customers were everyday people,” he said. 

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Henry Kisor recalled Sobol for his love of conversation in his 1990 book “What’s That Pig Outdoors.” The book recalled Kisor’s lifelong struggles to overcome the limitations of total deafness. He developed the ability to speak with hearing people through speech and lip reading. 

“He cannot bear a conversational vacuum. Nor can he speak to the unresponsive sides and back of my head as he works upon them, but must stop now and then, whirl the chair so that I face him, and ask after my family or inquire about my opinion of a sporting event,” Kisor wrote. “Am I impatient? No, for John refuses to let my deafness deprive him of his pleasure. He cuts, and he connects.”

Area institution 

Sobol worked for so long that he outlasted a number of people who were themselves considered elder statesmen of the neighborhood. Leo Elbaum left his post at the CTA newsstand several years ago at age 86, but Sobol remembers his predecessor, a man known as “Shorty.” Pharmacy chain owner and developer David Lyman died in the 1980s and his successor at Linden Pharmacy, Lou Sotonoff, moved on in 2000 after nearly 30 years. 

The job had its perks. Sobol’s customers often gave him free tickets for Northwestern or other teams, and they stuck by him when another business owner tried to take over his space about 10 years ago. 

“He wanted me out of there. A lot of my customers went over and told him you kick him out and we’re not going to come here,” Sobol said. 

Sobol said styles changed over the decades, but most of what he did was some variation of a Princeton or crew cut. The traditional straight-razor shave went by the wayside nearly 20 years ago. 

“It takes too long to give a person a shave. I told people they could go and buy a year’s worth of razors for what I'd have to charge,” Sobol said. 

In the last years at the shop, Sobol worked alone, and after recovering from hernia surgery in the mid 1990s, continued until a heart condition and his doctor encouraged him to retire. Long retirements weren’t part of the Sobol tradition. His brother Frank continued as a barber until he was 90.

Retirement fun 

Sobol, who lives in Glenview, said he’s learning to enjoy retirement. “I'm catching up on all the sleep I missed. I can finally go to funerals and weddings,” he said. 

One of his daughters, Diane McGuire, said she is impressed by her father’s work ethic and the fact that he raised such a large family. 

“He’s just the nicest, warmest guy. This is all I could ever hope for. I never expected that he could settle into any retirement,” she said. 

Sobol’s family is planning a reception from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Shillelagh Room at Hackney’s on Lake Avenue in Glenview. The reception is open to all of Sobol’s customers and friends. 

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