When Travis Bell first started cutting hair at Fort Bragg in 1966, cuts were 90 cents.
Lyndon Johnson was president and “Batman” was in theaters.
A lot has changed in those years, but some things remain the same. Bell is still cutting hair. On July 7, he was recognized for 50 years of service as a barber in the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters building, having previously moved from an old E-4 Club to the 1st Corps Support Command headquarters before settling in the HQ in July 1967.
Today, Bell’s haircuts vary from $8.55 to $10.75 and “The Lego Batman Movie” is in theaters.
At the recognition ceremony, Maj. Gen. Paul LaCamera, deputy commander Fort Bragg and XVIII Abn. Corps, became choked with emotion as he spoke of Bell’s impact.
“He’s shaped a lot of leaders in the Corps. He has probably counseled every Corps commander since 1967,” said LaCamera. “We’ve got a man here who has had a tremendous impact.”
He’s a devout Christian who reads his Bible when he’s not cutting hair, LaCamera added.
But, no matter what Bell is doing, leaders know where to find him.
Then Lt. Gen. Robert York, Corps commanding general, was the first general to sit in his barber chair.
“I was so nervous,” said Bell. “He walked in the barbershop, told me his name, shook my hand. To this day, I haven’t told him my name.”
Jack Cox was Fort Bragg Garrison commander in the 1970s. Now, he volunteers at the installation’s USO of North Carolina office in the Soldier Support Center. Cox paused from those duties to attend Bell’s celebration. The men stare back more than 40 years, at a picture of themselves in 1975 that hangs on the wall of Bell’s barbershop. It’s one of many, including photos of former leaders such as David Rodriguez, Eric Shinseki, Stanley McChrystal and Lloyd Austin.
“It’s good to see you,” Bell said.
“It’s good I can still be seen,” Cox replied.
“Mr. Bell is the finest person that I have ever known,” Cox said. “If Mr. Bell said today is Saturday, I would change my clock.”
“He’s a great man. I worked on his Corps staff. He’s been cutting my hair since the 80s,” said Bob Melchior, a retired colonel who drove 300 miles from Virginia to see Bell get recognized.
Bell estimates that he has given haircuts to about 35, four-star generals and 23 Corps commanders.
“That’s good. There ain’t nobody else that’s done that hardly,” said Bell, in dialect bent South toward the farm on which he was reared in Robeson County, North Carolina.
He said his mother raised 11 children after his father died in 1950. He’d held various jobs before becoming a barber — painter, carpenter, laborer in a poultry plant. But, he edged a living by shaping a man’s hairline.
“When I got the clippers in my hand, I knew I was in the right place.”
Over the years, the cuts have changed from regular haircuts to high and tights, Afros, flat tops, whitewalls and fades, said Bell, who estimates he’s cut more than a million heads.
Yet, he seemingly identifies with service members.
“I’m up here where the money’s at now. When I was an E-4, I had to cut on credit,” Bell said.
LaCamera presented Bell with a binder of notes from former Corps commanders and joked about Bell’s first time in an airplane — a tandem jump made with the U.S. Army Parachute Team, July 6. He reminded the barber that the world’s first ATM went into service in 1967.
“You’ve been working longer than an ATM,” LaCamera said.
Bell doesn’t plan to change his work life.
“When I came here, I didn’t know if I’d last one day,” he said. “(It’s the) best job I ever had in my life.
“I don’t know when I'm going to retire. I’m enjoying it right now.”