Come to find out, a whole bunch of us here in town were members of a secret fan club. It was so secret, in fact, that only by making loud yowling noises on hearing the terrible news did we discover our shared hero worship for the soft-spoken guy whose upbeat-offbeat chitchat would mellow us out and give us a grin or 20 when it was time to get our hair mowed every four weeks or whenever.
What’s more, for far less than a king’s ransom, this talented, good-hearted guy would throw in his patented ‘touchless’ haircut, one befitting our frequent red carpet appearances and guest shots on the late night talk show circuit.
Ken Carpenter, co-founder of Silver Shears Barber Shop in the Village Plaza here in Marblehead, passed away on Jan. 23, after a brief illness. None of us saw it coming.
To say Kenny was endlessly surprising is understatement. Here’s this boyish-looking guy in his late 70s commuting from Saugus three days a week to stand on his feet working his magic half bent over most of the eight hours he was here, and from the minute you sat down in the chair, he was on. Not hyper on but easygoing on … inimitably Kenny Carpenter on.
There you were in Kenny’s chair, just 2 1/2 feet from the open partition to the customer waiting area, one of six chairs in a room abuzz with barbers and customers chattering away, and yet there was this island of calm about it. It was as if the second Kenny draped the cutting cape over you and fastened it, you were suddenly in a private room, and the performance could begin — undisturbed by anything short of an earthquake or the hysterics of a customer caught redhanded in a shameless attempt at overtipping.
In the course of the next 25 minutes or so, back and forth you and Kenny would go. It was like a slo-mo slalom glide down an alpine slope. He’d draw from his kaleidoscopic collection of interests and talents, and interact with you on yours.
Kenny was a Renaissance man. He knew a little about just anything you could think of. He was a human trivia encyclopedia. We’d talk old-time movies, and mystery dramas, soap operas and comedy shows from the golden age of radio — “those thrilling days of yesteryear” — when it was Theater of the Mind.
Kenny could recite routines and shticks verbatim from “The Jack Benny Show,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Fred Allen,” “Grand Central Station” and on and on. Same for music: old standards, jazz, classical, you name it. Movie stars and famous people: ditto. History: ditto-ditto. Pop culture and how-to: ditto-ditto-ditto.
He was a proficient dabbler. Taught himself to speak and read books in German. Taught himself to draw, and proudly displayed artful sketches of his granddaughters on the counter in front of his mirror. In his younger days, despite his infrequent opportunities to play, he held his own on the golf course.
Above all, Ken Carpenter was a magnificent human being: a devoted family man who found ways to sing the praises of his family at every opportunity. (Son Ken, a terrific credit to his father, carries on the Carpenter tradition as a principle at Silver Shears.) Ken was known for his gentle, caring ways. As one of the memories shared by a longtime friend expressed it: “He was such a gentle soul, always in the background making sure everything was in good order … he never said anything bad about anybody.”
The thing I personally will always remember most about Kenny was also “gentle” — his gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor; the ability to poke fun at himself … and especially that wonderful little-kid laugh of his that went with it.
One of Kenny’s many gifts was his ability to do imitations. His brother Richard in a tribute to his brother said that Kenny would “continue to do his fine imitation of Elvis” in heaven.
Nobody can imitate Kenny Carpenter — he was one of a kind. Weren’t we who experienced him lucky?
Bob Baker has his own branding and creative services firm in Marblehead. He completed a memoir manuscript in December.