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True to shop name, he was a cut above

It has become one of my standing cliches: "I get a haircut four times a year whether I need one or not."

Which, of course, is why I always look like I need one.

It is a blessing to have a full head of brown hair at my age and I'm not all that eager to shorten it, knowing that any day now it could start showing up in my sink. And for a guy who isn't exactly consumed by matters of personal appearance, I am careful about haircuts.

Finding a good barber is like finding a good mechanic. You form a trust, a friendship. For the past 15 years, I have been fortunate on both fronts.

Friday morning, it seemed like a good time to make my quarterly visit to Tim Valenta at A Kut Above on State Road 52 in Hudson. Not only was I starting to look like a hippie again, this was the day that we would learn for certain who was going to be on the ballot in the September primary election.

Tim liked talking to me about politics. He read the Times closely each morning, and he had great fun clipping his scissors around my ear while recounting my more controversial columns. Tim often shared with me his customers' thoughts on important issues, though more often we reverted to more primal discussions _ his beloved Bears, my Cowboys.

I was looking forward to some of that repartee Friday morning when I called for an appointment. His grandmother, Helen Yanushka, shocked me with her response: "We buried Tim two months ago."

I thought I had misunderstood, but she repeated the same message. "Some of his customers are still finding out, like you," she said.

How Tim's death got past me, I don't know. I faithfully scan obituaries in the paper, and his ran on May 10, three days after his brother, Mark, found him dead in the bathtub of his home in Holiday, fully clothed. All these weeks later, the family is still waiting for an official cause of death. He had been ill with pneumonia, but his doctors did not put him in a hospital. At 45, Tim had been relatively healthy, save for foot problems brought on by the hours he stood cutting hair.

For all of his chatter while working, he was painfully shy outside the shop, said his mother, Kay Rankin. She bought A Kut Above 15 years ago and turned it into a real family affair, with Tim and Mark moving from Chicago to do the styling and Mrs. Yanushka serving as receptionist. At 91, she still reports faithfully each day to work, and on Friday was getting her hair done while joining the family in reminiscing about Tim. "He was a good boy," she said. "When he died, his customers cried. Everyone cried."

After the funeral, Mrs. Rankin began the sad process of gathering up his belongings. She knew he loved to read but was surprised at the number of books he owned. "He had everything, from Romeo and Juliet to Stephen King, law books, encyclopedias and religion books," she said. "He was so shy that he loved to get lost in books. But he always said he would rather listen to the stories of his older customers because they had lived through history. He loved their stories from the war or the Depression."

Mrs. Rankin stuffed the hardcover books in a huge box and donated them to the county library in Holiday. Hundreds of paperbacks went to a local nursing home. "Other things I just couldn't bear to part with _ some of his Chicago Bears stuff. He loved kidding with the New York fans, especially."

The work station at A Kut Above where Tim cut hair and talked football and politics more than 15 years has gone untouched since he died. On the wall above the sink is a photo of his stepdaughter, Brianna. His black sneakers sit on a ledge near a hairbrush.

I knew him only from the shop, only from those appointments that were so irregular that I always felt guilty for having allowed my hair to grow so long that it made him work harder. He never complained. And I learned something about my community, listening to my barber. He was a good one.