The clippers and gab of late barber Bill Graves

by Rich Ecke

Bill Graves clipped hair and warmed hearts.

The longtime Great Falls barber owned the Riverview Barber Shop and was famous for giving U.S. Sen. Jon Tester flat-top haircuts. Graves died Friday at age 80 after extended periods of ill health.

No funeral service is planned at Graves’ insistence, according to customer and friend Cheri Calsetta.

Bull-headedness might have been one of his qualities, but not the only one. 

“He was a very sweet man,” Calsetta said Friday. “On the outside, he was very crusty.”

Graves gained fame, such as being interviewed by the venerable British Broadcasting Corp., for cutting Tester’s hair straight across on top, an old-fashioned look that Tester has displayed in the U.S. Capitol.

The barber also did favors for people, making haircut house calls to nursing homes and retirement facilities to trim the hair of folks who couldn’t make it to the shop.

Graves not only cut hair but provided entertainment, as many in the profession do. He acted as the conductor of a symphony, the manager of a baseball team, the ringmaster at a circus. His ample handlebar mustache helped obscure whether he was sporting a sly grin while joshing with and teasing customers.

In the 20th century in Montana, the barber shop was a male bastion with rough edges, sometimes featuring men’s magazines and off-color jokes. As a child, I had a barber in Helena who was as racist as they come.

But Bill Graves’ shop in Riverview, a blue-collar part of Great Falls that sprang up after World War II, was a more modern and progressive place to get locks lopped off. Women began working there around 1990, and his granddaughter, Megan McKiernan, now runs the shop.

His humor was kind rather than cruel, and he had a gift for gab that wouldn’t quit. Graves worked as a barber in the Electric City for 60 years.

When Ethan Calsetta, Cheri and Rich Calsetta’s grandson, got his hair cut, Bill Graves would refer to the Ethan Allen furniture company.

“How’s the furniture business going, young man?” Graves would ask jokingly. Three generations of Calsettas received haircuts from Graves, not counting a fourth generation with Cheri’s father.

“He wasn’t politically correct and none of his customers cared,” Cheri Calsetta added. “He would tease my husband Rich Calsetta that the quota for I-talians was filled and the gates were closed in eastern Montana, so no more I-talians!”

“He joked and teased and cussed and spoke his mind,” Cheri said. “He was a guy’s guy, but he loved kids and had a wonderful tradition of putting the kids in a booster seat for their haircuts, then in a few years they graduated! He gave out paper certificates of their first haircut. His shop was an icon in this town, especially in the Riverview area.”

“He was a great guy,” his wife, Barb, said Saturday. Graves’ longtime partner at the shop was Don Broughton.

Tester, Graves’ friend in the U.S. Senate, learned of the death Friday.

“He was pretty shaken up,” said Tester’s press secretary, Marnee Banks.

Graves was a past member of the Montana Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists; he left the board in 2011. In the year Graves stepped down from the board, there were 508 licensed barbers in Montana and 174 barber shops, compared to seven times as many beauty salons in the state, 1,246, and 12 times as many cosmetologists, 6,191 cosmetologists. Clearly, salons have the edge these days, but barbers and barber shops are hanging in there.

Getting a haircut isn’t as cut and dried as it used to be. Today, men get their hair cut in barber shops but also salons in Montana; women get their hair cut in beauty salons, but also in barber shops, such as Cheri Calsetta. Both men and women work in barber shops and beauty shops; both barbers and cosmetologists are required to be licensed in Montana.

Barber shops may be less common than they were, but they remain a fixture in many communities, sporting the famous red, white and blue barber pole.

If you’re lucky, you will pop into a barber shop one day and find someone as gregarious and charming as Graves wielding the clippers.