Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100


I met the late Marcus “Mac” McGee shortly after he turned 100 years old.  He was a small man in stature but he exuded high character in the way he conducted himself.  He spoke with rhythmic charm and he dressed in classic style.  He was a gentleman through and through.  Having come out of the Deep South to make a life for himself and his family in Omaha, you knew that he had seen a few things.  The more I talked to him and to others who knew him from back in the day, I learned he had built a thriving business in North Omaha, the Tuxedo Barber Shop, that made him a pillar in his community.  He gave and commanded respect.  He was also something of a legend in his own time for his deadeye marksmanship as a hunter and trapshooter.  He and his shop and the role they played in the community when a village really did raise a child represented something treasured and lost.  Here is a profile I wrote about this unforgettable personality.

 

 

black barber shop

 

 

 

 

 

Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

 

As Americans enjoy increasingly longer life spans, octogenarians and centenarians grow more commonplace. But as 100-year-old Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha proves, no one who has lived a century should be taken for granted. Start with the fact this lifelong boxing fan sounds uncannily like one of his favorite prizefighers from the past – Muhammad Ali. Right down to the soft, melifluous voice and braggadocio style. A fiercely proud and stubborn descendant of both African-American slaves and white slave owners, McGee can be a cantankerous sort these days. He is entitled to sone orneriness though after spending the better part of a century forging a life of substance against all odds.

It would be easy to ignore McGee or any of his fellow residents at the Maple-Crest Care Center in Benson. But that would be a mistake, for these ancient ones are reservoirs of rich life experiences. Take McGee, for example. Talk to him for awhile and you soon learn about the beloved Tuxedo Barber Shop he owned and operated for decades on the Near North Side.  While strictly against nursing home rules, McGee still plies his barber skills now and then by giving his roommate a trim and shave. He fussily lays out the tools of his trade on a tray. Clippers, tweezers, brushes, combs, creams, tonics, lotions. His small hands are surprisngly steady and his nimble fingers move with well=practiced precision. You learn too this avid sportsman was a crack shot and expert small game hunter. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 of 100 targets at trapshooting ranges. Even now, he maintains the lean body of an athlete. One of his fondest memories is going to New York City to see his idol, the great heavyweight black boxer Jack Johnson fight at Madison Square Garden.

“I sat there live and watched Jack Johnson knock a man’s natural teeth out of his mouth. I saw him do that, yeah,” he said.

 

Louis McDowell demonstrates how to sharpen a straight razor at his shop in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1994. Via the Library of Congress.

 

Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are bedridden or wheelchair-bound, he navigates the sprawling complex on his own two feet, albeit with the aid of a cane. And where most residents appear disshelved, his features always remain well-groomed and his dress nattily-attired. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to one of his barbering proteges. Last September McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at the social hall of Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Avenue. A crowd of friends and family, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds.

When he ponders what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barber shop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the North Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this survivor of Jim Crow and participant in the Great Migration.

One hundred years sure is a long time, someone suggested.

“It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen.

Escorted into the hall by his five daughters, his entrance sparked a rousing round of applause and cheers. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996. After two earlier marriages failed, McGee finally got it right with the former Laverne Lawson, who kept all the books at his shop. “They were quite a team,” said daughter Marcia Butler, an Omaha school teacher. As well-wishers offered congratulations or shared reminiscences, the party put in focus all that McGee once was and still is – a meticulous man of many roles and skills. While not as physically spry or mentally sharp as he would like, he remains a vibrant soul with a lifetime of stories to tell.

Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border in a period when the Ku Klux Klan still reigned, his family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. Kizzie, who lived nearby, maintained contact with the black side of the family. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the Delta. The runt of the litter, McGee, toughened himself working on the livestock-laden farm. It was there he learned two skills that he would build his life around – shooting and barbering.

His father taught him how to handle a gun at a young age. Even though it was too much weapon for him at the time, he often used a single-barrel 12-gauge shot gun as a boy. He recalls an incident when the gun nearly got the better of him. “I was about 10 or 12 years old. A hog got out after the chickens. My mother ran out hollering at the hog. I got the gun. I dragged it outside by the barrel. My mother said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘I’m going to kill that hog.’ I broke it (the gun) down, I put the shells in and I closed it up. I raised it up but the stock was too long for me. I looked down the barrel with my eyes open and I pulled the trigger, and the hog went one way and the gun went the other way and I went to the ground. My mother laughed. But from then on I could go out with my gun hunting and kill everything I shot at.”

He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table with his deadeye marksmanship and cutting people’s hair for spare change with his dexterous mastery of scissors.

Just out of his teens he followed the path of many Southern blacks in what became the Great Migration to the North, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentful. During his wanderings he picked up spending money by cutting heads, including those of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road. Never one to back away from a challenge, he recalls how a large man in Falls City, Neb. teased him about his diminuitve size, whereupon McGee promptly threw him to the floor and pinned his shoulders down until the man begged for mercy.

He eventually made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s. Before the Great Depression hit the still new century was a fat time for most Americans, unless you happened to be black or Hispanic. “The hardest times I had was when I first got here. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a job.” Like many new arrivals to the area he finally found employment in the Omaha packing plants. “I went to work in a packing house cleaning hog innards. I didn’t like working there. I said to myself, What am I doing here? I should be in a barber shop. So, after two or three weeks there, I quit. I walked out and I never went back. I started cutting heads.”

That decision changed his life, as did his earning a state barber’s license in 1928. “When I got that license, that’s all I needed,” he said. He eventually opened his own place and it was at the Tuexedo Barber Shop in the historic Jewell Building on North 24th Street that he became his own man.

“The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them, and I worked on them, too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber, Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor. We sure did.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An abiding perfectionist. McGee has always been a sticler for doing things a certain way. His way. As a former barber under him said, “There may have been a better way, but his way stood.” For more than 50 years, McGee’s will prevailed. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. For one thing, no profanity was allowed in the shop. And no drinking or smoking on the job was tolerated. Obsessive about running a clean clip joint, McGee swept the floor incessantly and pressed his family into serve at night to wipe things down. “I didn’t let nothing get dirty,” he said. “I had it looking good.”

His fastidiousness no doubt led to him being appointed the state’s first black barber shop inspector, a post he held several years. Together with his longtime and equally bullheaded partner, the late James Bailey, the two made an indomitable pair.

Even into the 1970s the Tuxedo was strictly an old-school establishment – from the atmosphere to the discourse to the service. No fancy hair styles there. Just a neat, clean cut and a smooth, close shave. “If you didn’t see things the way Daddy and Mr. Bailey saw them, you might as well have gone to another shop. It was their way or no way, even down to the haircut,” said another daughter, Leanna Simmons. “If you said, ‘I’d like my hair this way,’ it was, ‘Nope,’ zip, zip, zip, okay, goodby. They cut it the way they wanted it cut.”

Leanna’s son and one of McGee’s many grandchildren, Anthony Lawrence Simmons, confirms that’s how it was. “Every grandchild would go down there to get their hair cut. Grandpa didn’t care what hair style you wanted. If it was the latest style out, you were not getting it. You only got what he wanted. He knew what was right. Yet his place was always busy, so everybody liked him. He gave a clean haircut. It may not have been what you wanted, but it looked good. He made sure you left his shop looking sharp.”

For proof of just how particular McGee and Bailey could be, the shop’s third chair sat vacant many years because the barbers they tried out turned out to be “loafers” in their eyes. Finally, an enterprising young clipper by the name of Clyde Deshazer measured up to their expectations and they took him on to stay. Except they couldn’t get used to his tongue-tripping name, so they nicknamed him Youngblood. The name stuck. Today, Youngblood’s Barber Shop is THE haircutting emporium in North O.

When McGee finally closed his own shop in the late ’70s, he went to cut at Youngblood’s, where he remained until 1988. It was a case of the master working under the former pupil. “He was set in his own ways,” Deshazer said,  “He still wanted to charge like $2.50 for a haircut but we were charging $4 by then. I said, ‘When I worked for you, I went by your prices, now that you’re working for me, you go by my prices. Things have just changed a little bit.’ After that, we didn’t have any more problems. We got along fine. Like father and son.”

The Tuxedo was among dozens of thriving black-owned businesses in North Omaha before the expansion of the Interstate system and the explosion of the riots in the late ’60s resulted in disruption and decline. In its heyday the Tuxedo drew an eclectic mix of customers. Businessmen. Blue-collar workers. Squares. Hipsters. Pool sharks frequented a popular billiards hall adjacent to it. Jazz and blues musicians played the Dreamland Ballroom above it. In classic barber shop tradition, the Tuxedo was a hangout for guys to talk guns and sports, politics and women. McGee’s favorite topic, of course, was shooting.

“If you started talking about trapshooting you might be in that chair an hour, ” Deshazer said. “He loved that.”

For Keith A. Ross, who shined shoes there during the tumultous civil rights era, the shop was an awakening and an education rolled into one. “Besides learning to shoot pool at the pool hall next door, the shop was where I first learned about the NAACP and the Urban League. It was a friendly shop where people gathered and had conversations about different issues affecting the North Omaha community. It was grownup talk.”

 

 

 

John Butler, former head of the local chapter of the NAACP, recalls, “We talked about a lot of issues there. As a matter of fact, Mr. McGee was instrumetnal in helping us and molding our ways,” he said, referring to early Omaha activists like himself.

Beneath the hard core exterior of the proprietor resided a soft heart.

“As ornery as he and Bailey were, they were good people,” Leeana said. “I remember Momma saying Daddy would sometimes accept in lieu of payment for a haircut a watch or a ring. It was kind of like a little pawnshop. Adds Marcia, “People would come in and get loans from him if they lost their job and they needed to pay their rent or something like that.”

Ross recalls McGee as a stern but benevolent figure. “The first job I ever had was shining shoes in his barber shop. He really treated me well. He was very protective and very caring. In order to get to the shop I had to walk through an area where the boys on the corner, so to speak, were dealing. Theirs was a flashy life, but it was ugly. I could have been on that track, too, but I always kept his form of discipline in mind. He said, ‘Always be on time or otherwise you suffer the consequences.’ I never found out what those consequences were because I was never late. I really didn’t want to let him down. I still don’t. It’s why I think I’ve got such a healthy work ethic now.”

According to Ross, his mentor was part of a different breed then. “Mr. McGee and owners of the other small businesses there gave you a real sense of the history of the development of the area. They would come out on the street and interact with us. It was a community feeling. I don’t see where we have that now. He probably developed in me my sense of peoplehood.”

Back in the day, North O was a community within a community where everybody looked out for everybody else and where, decades before the Million Man March, strong black men took a hand in steering young black males. McGee and Bailey were among a gallery of mentors along North 24th Street.

Richard Nared recalls, “Oh, we had a bunch of role models. John Butler, who ran the YMCA. Josh Gibson. Bob Gibson. Bob Boozer. Curtis Evans, who ran the Tuxedo Billiards. Hardy “Beans” Meeks, who ran the shoe shine parlor. Mr. McGee and Mr. Bailey who ran the Tuxedo Barber Shop. All of these guys had influence in my life. All of ‘em. And it wasn’t just about sports. It was about developing me. Mr. Meenks gave a lot of us guys jobs. In the morning, when I’d come around the corner to go to school, these gentlemen would holler out the door, ‘You better go up there and learn something today.’ or ‘When you get done with school, come see me.’

“Let me give you an example. Curtis Evans, who ran the pool hall, would tell me to come by after school. ‘So, I’d…come by, and he’d have a pair of shoes to go to the shoe shine parlor and some shirts to go to the laundry, and he’d give me two dollars. Mr. Bailey used to give me free haircuts…just to talk. ‘How ya doin’ in school? You got some money in your pocket?’ I didn’t realize what they were doing until I got older. They were keeping me out of trouble. Giving me some lunch money so I could go to school and make something of myself. It was about developing young men. They took the time.”

McGee’s son-in-law Larry Simmons (Leanna’s husband) values the life lessons his elder taught him. Simmons said McGee instilled in him and his friends a respect for rules, manners and traditions. “It was a high standard he made for all of us. You did not walk into his house with a hat on your head or your shirt outside your pants. He’s always been a fanatic about that kind of stuff. Even with his own dress today, his tie is neat, his shoes are shined, his belt is in its proper place. He has everything down to a tee. He taught us all of that.”

 

Louis Armstrong gets a haircut in his local barbershop in Queens, New York, circa 1965. Via "LIFE" Magazine.

 

The fussy McGee’s penchant for tidiness and exactness extended to other areas of his life. At home, for example, he operated a sewing machine to make and mend his own own shooting-hunting vests and related apparel items. Veteran trapshooter Dick Gradowski  of Blair, Neb. said McGee was a veritable fashion plate even at the range. “He was always neatly dressed. I don’t think I ever saw him in a pair of blue jeans. He was always very particular about his appearance. ” McGee was just as finicky about the shells he used – fashioning his own with a special machine. Hr built his own shooting gallery in his dirt basement. He carefully cleaned his large collection of Browning rifles and kept them safely locked in a case. Brought up to be self-sufficient, he harvested fruits and vegetables from country fields and his own backyard gardens for canning and freezing.

Choosy about what he ate, he avoided pork and salt and he whipped up elixder-like brews of honey, hot water and milk and blended fruit and vegetable concoctions. He bagged pheasants, quail, squirrel and all manner of small game on hunting outings and he hooked fish by the stringer-full at area lakes and rivers. He was, by all accounts, a good cook, too.

He won countless turkeys and hams, in addition to trophies, at area trapshootung tournaments. He also pocketed cold, hard cash from the many side bets he won from shooting companions. A member of an amateur trapshooting hall of fame. McGee’s love of the sport is such he turns most any conversation over to the many guns he owned, many of which are now classics, and to the many shooting exploits he compiled.

“Oh, man, I loved to shoot. I’d go out every Sunday. I don’t know how many turkeys and hams I won, but I had to rent a locker at Bickel’s Meats to store all that meat in a freezer there. I don’t know how much money I made, but I’d come home with a potful sometimes. Maybe $200-$300. My wife would say, ‘What’d you bring home?’ I’d say, ‘I brought a little change home.’ And she’d go, ‘Well, let me have it then.'”

 

Silhouette of a young man shooting with a long rifle against sunset sky

 

His reputation for dominating the field scared off some in shooting cirlces. Fewer and fewer challengers were willing to take him on.

“I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.

Butler, Deshazer and Gradowksi all saw him in action and attest to the fact his skill could discourage others. Butler said, “He had an eye. When he went hunting he used to wait for everybody else to shoot and if you missed your quail he would get it.”

DeShazer said, “Oh, yeah, he was a marksman. He once killed 17 quail out of 18 shots. Not too many people beat him. If you neat him, he was going to try to figure out a way a way to beat you,”

Gradowski added. “He was a very, very good shooter in his time. you had to watch out for him.”

At age 88 McGee finally had to give up his two loves – shooting and barbering – following a motor vehicle accident in which he suffered a severe head injury. He lapsed into a coma but regained consciousness a few days later. He made a full recovery except for the loss of some motor skills. Through a rehabilitation program that included weight training he got back most of his motor functions, although his shooting days were over. Shooting is never far from his thoughts, however.

“I miss everything about shooting,” he said.

He said he sometimes dreams of being back on the range. There he is again, locking, loading, sighting the soaring trap and firing. Naturally, he never misses.

“Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”

 

 

 

 
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  1. March 15, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    I LOVED reading this story…. !! I would love to have met Mr. McGee….May he forever rest in peace…. !

    Like

    • March 15, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      Thank you so much for commenting, Bessie. Glad you enjoyed the story. It is my privilege to meet and share many remarkable people I’ve encountered over the years. Hope you keep visiting my blog and Facebook page and please share it with others.

      Like

  1. February 8, 2018 at 3:43 am

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