Earl Brigham and his striped barber pole have been a staple in the downtown community for 46 years.
When you walk into Earl Brigham’s Barber Shop, be prepared for lively conversation — even if it sounds and looks a little untraditional.
Brigham is deaf — he lost his hearing when he was 2 — so communication in his downtown Winter Garden shop is a combination of written notes, charades, hand gestures, facial expressions and American Sign Language.
Brigham has been a barber in downtown Winter Garden for 46 years — 17 of them in his Edgewater Hotel storefront — and he has longtime customers who don’t dare let anyone else touch their hair.
His clientele includes generations of men and boys who come into the barber shop for a cut and conversation. They take a seat in the leather seats, wait for him to put on the paper collar and let him know how much they want off. He already knows what cuts the regulars get.
Every haircut comes with one tradition, and all of his customers know when he takes off the paper collar, he will wad it up and toss it toward the small basketball hoop attached to the wall — near a framed photo of John Wayne.
It’s ironic that this friendly man knows so many people and names in the community. He didn’t know his own name until he was 9.
WHO AM I?
Brigham was born in Panama, one of five children. He lost his hearing when he was 2.
“I felt for a long time that it wasn’t fair that everyone else around me could hear,” he said. “I had to ask everybody what everyone was saying, and, of course, they would have to write it down because nobody knew sign language.”
When Brigham was 6, the family moved to New York at the recommendation of several physicians who could not diagnose why he lost 100% of his hearing. They thought American doctors could do more for him, Brigham said. In the end, they could not.
The Brighams found their way to Florida after hearing about the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, in St. Augustine. At age 9, Brigham was enrolled in the school.
“At that point, I did not know my name, did not know the names of anything … did not know how to write … did not have a language,” he said. “The family had invented home signs, their own way of communicating.”
This was his first interaction with other deaf people, and seeing them interact through ASL scared him.
“First, when I went, it was very hard,” Brigham said. “I felt very alone and felt very scared. I didn’t know why their hands were moving. After a few months passed, I learned sign language and got used to it.”
He quickly caught up to his classmates academically and got involved in football, basketball and track at school before graduating in 1966.
The school taught various trades to students, and Brigham picked up barbering and drafting. He decided to become a barber when he learned about Orlando Barber College. He breezed through in three months instead of the normal six — even without ASL assistance.
“I would sit by somebody who was writing notes and write what they were saying,” he said. “I learned mostly by watching. Deaf people learn with their eyes. And the other students would help me. … It worked all these years.”
Following graduation, he took a job at a Pine Hills barber shop, and he stayed there for 10 years.
THE MOVE TO WINTER GARDEN
In 1976, when it was time for Brigham to move on, a customer suggested he open a barber shop in downtown Winter Garden. For 29 years, Brigham served clients at Earl Brigham’s Barber Shop in a space he rented across the street from his current location.
When the building owner wanted to expand his insurance company, Brigham needed another location. He found the perfect home in the Edgewater Hotel, which was undergoing major renovations. The hotel had a barber shop in the 1920s, and it was here that Brigham would make the space his own.
For about four months, while construction took place, Brigham continued cutting hair — in the driveway of his home.
“Customers couldn’t stand to be without him,” said Brigham’s wife, Robin. “They would just park in the yard and chitchat and wait for him. He had a chair in the driveway. We needed the income, too.”
Clients of all ages are devoted to Brigham — in some families, customers span three generations. He always enjoys seeing clients who have moved away and return to visit as adults.
“They come back and say, ‘Do you remember me? You cut my hair when I was a boy.’” Brigham said.
Taking care of families has created a comfortable life for Brigham — but the most important family has always been his own. He has had his share of tragedy, including the death of his first wife, Patsy, after the birth of their fourth child, but found love again with his current wife, Robin. Together, they have seven children.
Brigham met Patsy during an evening out with friends; he taught her the alphabet over bowling and dinner. A few months later, he saw her again — and she started signing with him.
“She had been working on it,” he said, smiling.
They married in 1975 and had four children: Mandy, Tim, Ryan and Rachel.
Patsy and Robin became friends through their church, and Robin was there to take care of the three older Brigham children when Patsy was in the hospital giving birth and fighting for her life.
Robin had learned ASL years earlier when a family with a deaf son named Eric came to the church. One verse in Proverbs bothered her: “A wise man will hear and will increase in learning.”
“God just used that to show me that it was me,” she said. “I needed to learn ASL for Eric, never thinking I would meet Earl and it would become my life.”
The pair dated, which wasn’t easy to do with his four children and her one, but love won, and they were married in 1984. They had two more children together. When all of their children grew up and moved out, the Brighams moved to a smaller home in Oakland six years ago. Several of the children became sign language interpreters.
Brigham leads the deaf ministry at their church, West Orlando Baptist Church. He also has been to 28 countries ministering to deaf people. He closes up the barber shop for a few weeks when he travels, and when he returns his customers are more than ready for another haircut. Because no one else can touch their hair.
Now 76, Brigham knows retirement is imminent, but he loves working, he loves his barber shop, he loves the people with whom he is connected, he loves his ministry, and he loves serving God, Robin said.
“People write me notes (saying), ‘When are you going to retire?’” Brigham said. “And I say, ‘Never!’ and they say, ‘Yay, please don’t!’”
Brigham’s customers-turned-friends can rest easy for now, knowing the red, white and blue barber pole will remain affixed to the front of the hotel and the open sign will stay up.
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