A cut above: At ease in Norwich’s barbershop © Feb. 19, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Madonna Commo cutting hair.

photo by Jay Ericson Madonna Commo goes high and tight in the barbershop.

Whether it’s perfecting the balancing act of being a full-time college student involved in extracurriculars or getting used to sharing a meal with hundreds of your peers, freshman year is all about rites of passage and jumping in with both feet.

For rooks, freshman year can be particularly daunting; the shock of starting the day at 5:30 a.m., sticking to a tight schedule and a restricted social life can be tough. Fortunately, when first-years go to the barbershop for that first hair cut, they discover a place as welcoming as it is efficient.

Dawn Cookson has been cutting the Norwich community’s hair for eighteen years now. Cookson knows keeping a laid-back atmosphere in the barbershop is not only good for business, it's also a much needed refuge “for freshman corps since they aren’t allowed to socialize much that first year.”

“They like coming down here. It’s a comfortable place,” Cookson said. “Here they are at ease.  They can talk to one another, listen to the radio and watch TV.”

In August 2006 the barbershop moved from Harmon Hall over to the old horse stall building in front of Kreitzeberg Arena. The shop is new but the hours are the same — weekdays, opening at 8 a.m. and taking the last customer at 4 p.m. According to Cookson, the new space is more comfortable, more convenient, and more accessible – the shop now boasts handicapped entrances and parking for its customers. And students are taking notice of the changes.

“I like how it's got its own location” said junior Cadet Ryan Schmitt. "It’s a lot cozier and has more seating which is good, especially at the beginning of the year.”

With a traditional barber shop pole outside the shop, a beautiful black and white checked floor inside, large windows bringing in lots of sun, several haircut stations lining part of the shop, and a big waiting room full of magazines, the shop conjures up classic images of straight razors, gleaming scissors and pure Americana. The craftsmanship put into renovating the building translates into a feeling of permanence that was lacking in the old location.

And that permanence is a very good thing for Phil Susmann, Vice President of Technology and Strategic Partnerships, who swears by Norwich’s barbershop.

“When I started as a new faculty member, I got my first hair cut before I started teaching classes,” Susmann said. “The entire concept of a different barbershop and telling someone how to cut my hair was over.”

The barbershop refuge left such an impression on Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans Master Sgt. Randy Peace and Maj. Adam Rice ’90, the two made sure to take some time on the front-lines to hatch a plan to acknowledge Madonna Commo’s 22 years of scissor-wielding service and Cookson’s talent, thoughtfulness and dedication to the NU community.

On Sept. 8, 2006, Rice and Peace, a former barber at the shop, presented Commo and Cookson with an American Flag flown over the 407th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, Ali Base in Iraq. Although the gesture was clearly a thank-you to Commo and Cookson for their role in sending much-needed barber supplies over to Iraq, Commo played down that fact, stating “they knew the barbershop was a great place to display the flag.”

While some alums send their gratitude from overseas, those fortunate enough to live close to campus often show thanks by returning to the shop for a trim. The two barbers agreed that after cutting the hair of cadets and University employees for years, relationships naturally develop, and those relationships don't end with a diploma or a pension check. "We get to know them," Cookson said, "they retire and keep coming back.”

Lt. Col. Ted Smith is one such loyal patron. Although he's now seven-years into retirement, the former Assistant to the Provost, Dean of Summer School and Coordinator of Campus Activities said he still makes regular pilgrimages to The Hill for one specific reason: “They’ve been cutting my hair for twenty years and I hate to break in a new barber. They do a great job.”

Though the barbershop began as a free service for cadets, it’s also a hidden jewel for NU’s traditional students and employees. Gary Atwood, the Universities Facilities Operations Manager for forty-seven years prior to retiring two years ago, started getting his hair cut at the barbershop in 1958. And like many others, Atwood said his final twenty-two years on The Hill bear many fond memories of the two ladies who maintained his personal appearance on a regular basis. More importantly, Atwood said, he hopes the shop continues serving the Norwich community for years to come, because it is a needed and much appreciated part of life on The Hill.

“The two ladies that work there now are so sociable and polite and they care about students and people who come into the shop,” Atwood said. “I hope they keep running it for a long time because they’re good for Norwich.”