When longtime Elgin barber Ralph Ward suffered back-to-back strokes last August, he knew one thing -- he wanted to get back to work as soon as possible.
That might have sounded like an unlikely proposition, given that the owner of Ralph's Barber Shop underwent open heart surgery and bypass surgery, and faced months of rehabilitation.
"My speech was gone. I couldn't even walk," said Ward, who turns 80 today. He's been cutting hair for 60 years and is likely the longest practicing barber in Elgin.
Ward said he just loves the business he opened on West Chicago Street in 1965.
"I wouldn't know what else to do anyhow. At home, there is nothing to do except exercise in the clubhouse," said Ward, who lives with his wife, Elsie, in the Edgewater Del Webb retirement community in Elgin.
"Besides, I missed my customers."
True to his word, Ward stunned everyone by going to work part-time just before Thanksgiving. After a few weeks, he was back to working his usual 40 hours a week.
"I'm about 90 percent now," he said. "It's just my legs. I have to rest once in a while."
His son, Steve Ward, who's been cutting hair alongside his father since 1977, said doctors thought the recovery would take much longer.
"(His drive) was about being back with people again, being here with his customers. This is home," Steve Ward said.
Longtime customer David Covey, 71, of Huntley visited Ralph while he was convalescing at home last fall.
"He had a hard time shuffling to the door to open it for us," Covey said. "Then the next time I went back to the shop, I was dumbfounded to see him standing there, cutting hair. I think it's marvelous, and it's kind of a miracle," he said.
Ralph is just a determined guy, Covey said.
"He told me he was going to get back to work, and I did believe him -- but I didn't think he'd be back as quickly, and I didn't think he'd be back full-time."
Customer Don Meyer of South Elgin, who's been coming to the barbershop for 20 years, agreed.
"It's amazing he came back to work," Meyer said. "I thought, 'Maybe if it goes well he'll be back two to three days a week,' but he's here every day."
Ralph began cutting hair in the Navy in 1953, and four years later got a job at the former Goodie's Barber Shop in downtown Elgin before opening his own shop.
"I knew every barber in town until our union fell apart years and years ago. I don't know anybody older than me," Ralph said.
Hairstyles have changed over the years, from flattops in the 1950s to bowl cuts in the '90s, but the long hair inspired by the Beatles is the only trend he ever resented, Ralph joked.
"The Beatles were bad for business," he said.
Though most haircuts are straightforward, once in a while clients will serve up a challenge by asking for lightning bolts or football numbers carved into their hair, he said.
Things have steadily declined for the barbering business, said Ralph, who used to employ three barbers back in the day.
"Everybody goes to beauticians now," he said. "Barbering is going out. It's going to fade out in time."
Still, he's made a solid living out of it, and he wouldn't have traded it for anything, he said.
"It's been an enjoyable job. You meet many, many people," he said.
"It's long hours, but you're making somebody look good, and taking care of them and their needs."