Ed Wheat was 13 years old when he picked up the clippers for the first time and cut his brother’s hair. Unlike many childhood hair-cutting experiments, though, it turned out pretty good.
“From that point on, I would cut my father’s and my brother’s hair,” he said. “And (when) I got older, high school, I cut friends’ hair. Joined the military (in 2001), cutting in the military.”
Now 43, Wheat, who served in the U.S. Army, is the official base barber at the Fort Harrison Exchange, which serves active military members and veterans, including reservists who come to the Lawrence-based military facility for training.
Wheat said he finished barbering school in 2008, about a year before he left the military. But at the time, he didn’t intend to make it his career — it was something to fall back on if he wanted. He opted to head back to school after his service, studying cytotechnology — the biological processes of cells — and chemistry. He eventually got a job with a Lilly subsidiary’s lab and worked his way up to senior data administrator.
“In 2018, they took our jobs and sent them to India,” he said. “They paid us, of course, and then that same year, I had a child.”
Wheat, a McCordsville resident, opted to stay home with his new baby, using the severance pay and taking time to figure out what he wanted to do next. When he got tired of sitting around, he reached out to some connections who helped him set up a barber supply business.
“I started that in 2020 and then did that for two years,” he said. “I still do it currently. And in 2022, this popped up.”
“This” was the opportunity to operate the official base barbershop at the Fort Harrison exchange. He heard the government contract for the shop was up for grabs, and decided he could get behind the chair again.
With help from mentors through the nonprofit SCORE, Wheat submitted a proposal, and in August 2022 was awarded the contract.
Wheat said although business ebbs and flows somewhat as reservists come and go for training, there are a lot of active military members coming through the area who need haircuts, along with veterans who like maintaining the regulation look.
“It’s actually been great,” he said. “Aside from a traditional barbershop, I’m dealing with mostly disciplined people with integrity — not a lot of riffraff — and then not a lot of variety of hairstyles, either. Usually, it’s probably four or five haircuts.”
Each military branch has its own regulation cut, Wheat explained. But he does keep up on current styles for some of the kids who come in.
“They want all this stuff they see on TikTok, or whenever the newest trend pops up,” he said. “I’d say about 30 percent of my business is still keeping up with the trends, the new modern-day trends of haircuts and stuff like that.”
That includes Mohawks, high-tops and shaved designs.
“So, yeah, I still get to practice and refresh my skills in that area a little bit,” he said.
The barbershop is open to military members, veterans and their families. Wheat added that he has an employee who is a licensed cosmetologist. She knows more haircuts and styles that some of their nonmilitary customers prefer.
Wheat guessed that between himself and his employee, they give up to 3,000 haircuts a year. He said he enjoys providing the service and feels like he’s giving back in some way to his military brothers and sisters. He also enjoys hearing people’s stories.
Army veteran Robert Shepherd is one of Wheat’s regular customers. He said it’s nice to get a haircut at a place where military lingo is second nature.
“We use a lot of acronyms in the Army,” he said. “My wife gets mad at me because she doesn’t know what I’m saying half the time.”
While he sports a full, long beard, Shepherd likes his hair “one on top and bald on the sides.”
“One” is a clipper length of an eighth of an inch.
“I like a military cut,” Shepherd said. “You don’t really get that at a regular barber shop. You get good haircuts here at a good price.”
For more about SCORE, visit score.org/indianapolis.
From analytical chemist to barber
Ed Wheat said a lot of people are curious how he switched careers from analytical chemistry to cutting hair, and how the two could possibly be related.
But, he said, both require precision, something that was literally drilled into him in the Army.
“With the military, that’s the main slogan — attention to detail,” he said, because in war a missed detail can mean the difference between life, death or capture.
Wheat added that while it’s not necessarily the case for every barber, he’s making more money running the barbershop and his barber supply business than he did as an analytical chemist. But he probably would not encourage his son to go into chemistry rather than barbering, he said, because there’s a lot of hard work and luck required to succeed in a service industry.