At age 78, barber works at a clip in nursing homes

It’s morning at Homestead Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lexington, and there’s already a line of wheelchairs waiting for Clay Tankersley.

Tankersley, 78, shares his barbering skills at the little barbershop there. He wheels his clients in one by one, makes a little small talk about what they used to do for a living, and then, with clippers and scissors, cuts until their hair, sometimes matted and overgrown and bedheaded, is neat and precisely placed.

Occasionally a patient will want to go “Yul Brynner,” Tankersley said: fully bald.

Tankersley is given a sheet of paper that shows which residents have money in their incidentals accounts and can pay for haircuts. But he doesn’t really follow it too closely. If a man wants a haircut, he’ll get it. Haircuts make people feel better, Tankersley says.

Tankersley knows he could make more money at his barbershop, with customers who can bring themselves to the shop and pay full price. But he likes his work at the nursing homes. If a patient can’t remember a detail or two in conversation, he’ll calmly redirect them. If a patient repeats himself about his past life and military service, Tankersley responds with enthusiasm. If a man really loved his long-dead Labrador, well, Tankersley can appreciate that.

“He does an excellent job,” said Homestead resident Ernie Davis, who gave his age as 22, but is more likely 22 plus five or six decades.

Tankersley spends his days hearing about lives spent on railroads, on interstate highways, on aircraft carriers. The decades become fluid in conversation, the names and specific job duties sometimes having slipped the bonds of memory.

He is particularly gentle with a resident who doesn’t speak, or open his eyes. The man’s hair is beautifully thick and glossy even though he is missing teeth and is slumped far down in his wheelchair.

When a patient comes in to his Homestead barber shop, Tankersley rarely has to ask how he likes his hair cut. There’s the close-to-head cut, the slight part, the little bit off all over.

“In my mind I can’t believe I’m as old as I am and have been barbering as long as I have,” Tankersley said. “As long as my health is with me, I’m going to keep on working.”

Many of the men try to pay him, or at least to tip. Tankersley describes that as being a male cultural tradition: the slicing move to the hip pocket for the wallet that’s no longer there.

One customer reached decisively into the pocket of his sweatpants and gave Tankersley a $2 tip. After some back-and-forth — maybe, Tankersley suggested, the customer would like to buy a Pepsi instead — Tankersley accepted the money.

Tankersley has been a barber for 60 years and has cut hair at nursing homes for 40 years.

An infection in a hip implant caused Alan Lyndon, originally from Birmingham, England, to become a short-time resident at Homestead. He came for his haircut wearing a Breaking Bad T-shirt and a very full head of hair.

When Tankersley finishes with him, he peers at Lyndon’s face: “Trim those eyebrows a little bit?” he asks. Well, yes, Lyndon replies.

He is equally kind to the long-term customers who come to his shop. They include Jim Blackford, who at 85 recently got an at-home haircut from Tankersley while recovering from surgery.

“He just likes to help people,” Blackford said. “That’s his main goal.”

In 1975, a minister friend of Tankersley’s went into a nursing home, and Tankersley stopped by to cut his hair. A nursing home administrator spotted a service that was needed, and Tankersley started having organized nursing home barber stations. At one time, he visited 11 nursing homes; now he’s down to six — two each in Nicholasville, Georgetown and Lexington.

Tankersley arrives at the nursing home after he drops off his only grandchild, Catelynn Tankersley, 11, at school. He calls her the apple of his eye; she calls him her “perfect popaw.”

Tankersley works until about noon, if necessary rolling the residents back to their rooms. He spends Tuesday and Thursday at the nursing homes, and he’s at his Wilmore shop on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

The late railroad mogul R.J. Corman, who died in 2013, used to come into Tankersley’s Wilmore shop every week for a haircut.

“I gave him his first haircut when he was a baby,” Tankersley said of Corman.

Tankersley was touched to find himself escorted into a VIP section — with UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari, among others — at Corman’s funeral, he said.

Back at the nursing home, a patient is being coaxed into having his picture taken with Tankersley. Maybe his family would like to see it, the reporter and photographer tell him.

“I got no family,” the patient replies.

“You got me,” Tankersley says.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman