MONROE - Gus Janssens first donned the red and white Santa Claus suit in 1995. He stood behind an antique Koken barber chair and did what he's done for nearly five decades: cut hair.
Although he sort-of-retired from full-time barbering in 1985 because of arthritis troubles, and was told by doctors in 1991 that he would never cut hair again, Mr. Janssens, 69, has dedicated at least two days a year - Dec. 23 and 24 - to practicing his craft with an added touch of holiday cheer.
Last year, during his holiday haircuts at the South Custer Road barber shop he has owned since 1963, Mr. Janssens cut the hair of an 8-month-old boy who was his youngest-ever Santa-suit customer. A photograph hanging from a mirror behind the shop's three chairs testifies to the event.
"You have to act like a child to cut a child's hair," Mr. Janssens said. "Your kids are your future customers, and if you can't keep them, you lose them."
All kids receive a certificate from Mr. Janssens for their first haircut, even his son, whose first cut was on March 30, 1972. That certificate, although faded over the years, still hangs on a door leading to the back of the shop.
His philosophy seems to work. Karl Sicuso, now 53, has been getting his hair cut at the shop since he was about 5 years old. He, too, stopped in Gus and Us Barbershop yesterday to get his locks cut, joking with Mr. Janssens as if he were an old family member.
At the other end of the customer-age spectrum from last year's infant is Gilbert Kosa, 92, who settled into the chair yesterday for a haircut even though, as he readily admitted, there wasn't much to cut up top.
"I have side stuff," he joked.
Mr. Kosa, whose younger brother, Edward, was a barber who retired a few years ago, has gone to Mr. Janssens for haircuts for the past three or four years, and said the Santa suit adds a bit of holiday panache.
"I kind of got a kick out of it. He's quite a guy," Mr. Kosa said. "I'm always happy when I go over there and get my hair cut."
Mr. Janssens made sure to snap a photo of his nonagenarian customer, too. One copy rested on the bench behind his chair, while Mr. Kosa kept the other.
The photos of customers young and old become part of Mr. Janssens' vast collection of barbershop memorabilia and antiques.
Nearly everything in the shop is an antique, from old shaving mugs to the sinks and benches. Even more antique barber equipment is stashed in his home and displayed in a room the size of his small barbershop, including more than 150 old straight razors. He even displays an ornament depicting what he calls "the world's smallest barbershop" on his Christmas tree.
"It's like a calling. It's more than a job," he said of his profession.
Mr. Janssens debuted the Santa haircuts when he decided to devote his haircutting talent to a charitable cause.
After fire destroyed St. Vincent de Paul in Detroit in 1995, Mr. Janssens used his barbershop to collect toys, nonperishable food, and other goods for the Detroit area non-profit. He temporarily hiked his haircuts' price to $100, with the proceeds going to the charity.
Five customers paid that price, while others donated what they could. By the end of the week-long charity drive, Mr. Janssens was able to fill several trailers with the goods and delivered them to Detroit.
Since then, Mr. Janssens figured, "somebody has to carry on the tradition. I know he won't," he said in jest while pointing to the man to his right, Lionel Ingels, who has been cutting hair in the chair next to Gus for the past 23 years, more than half of his barbering career. "He's a Scrooge," Mr. Janssens joked.
Through his years of being a barber in Monroe, Mr. Janssens, a former Monroe Township trustee and Monroe County commissioner, has outlasted much of his competition and earned quite a reputation.
There have been people in town whose final, dying request has been to get a haircut from the jolly, and admittedly stubborn, Mr. Janssens. And so he goes to the funeral homes to ensure those people go to the grave with a clean cut.
For 25 years he cut hair in the Monroe County jail and at senior centers in the area. He even claims to have transported Elvis Presley in 1957 - prior to getting his barber's license - to an Army base in Arkansas, where he got his locks cut. Mr. Janssens laments that he didn't scoop any of the King of Rock 'n' Roll's shorn hair off the floor afterward.
Spreading holiday cheer while cutting hair, despite the limitations caused by his swollen, arthritic-ridden joints, is still a source of joy for the aging barber.
"I don't give up. As long as I'm alive, there will be a barber in this town," Mr. Janssens said.
Contact James Joyce III at: