Real trust is required to let someone hold a razor to your face. It’s no wonder barbers are confidants and friends.
For longtime Centralia barber and fastpitch coach Roger Gonzales, the shop is where customers become loved ones.
In his 20s, the place was alive with youthful energy. Friends sat on the couch, the windowsill and the staircase from dawn to dusk, supporting and encouraging each other, sharing their stories.
He grew up, and his clientele grew with him. He cut the hair of World War II veterans and visited countless funerals for those men, who he had come to see as father figures. Later, his customer base became mainly the men his age, Vietnam veterans like himself, who all shared a brotherly bond.
Now at age 76, he finds himself cutting the hair of people young enough to be his grandchildren. After 50 years in his Lewis and Clark Hotel shop, he’s decided it’s time to finally retire. He will work his last day on Dec. 23.
Originally from Texas, Gonzales moved with his family to Wapato in Central Washington. He was a “baseball nut,” he said. But Wapato was small, so baseball players had to travel to Yakima to play. He instead opted for a spot on the track team.
His track coach was John Chaplin, who went on to coach at Washington State University and for the 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic Track and Field team. Still today, Gonzales sees him as one of the most influential people in his life.
“(Later, I) got married and all that, and I'm watching TV. Guess who's on the TV?” he said. “The track coach. I told my wife, 'Oh my God, that's my coach. My high school coach.' And she came out running.”
After finishing high school, Gonzales was drafted to Vietnam at age 19.
“Military, they kept me alive. Because I was there. The Lord brought me home,” he said. “I thank Him.”
Eventually ending up in Lewis County, he began the journey that he believes has been his life’s calling: coaching fastpitch.
“When I came to Centralia, nobody wants to coach girls back then,” Gonzales said. “That’s when I told my wife, ‘I'm going to dedicate myself to the girls.’ And I've been with them 50 years.”
He believes his life’s greatest accomplishment is the role he played in the success of his kids: his children, grandson and the fastpitch players.
His son and daughter became the first in Gonzales’ family to attend college. His grandson, age 21, is studying engineering at the University of Washington. Before attending UW, he was offered a scholarship to run at the Naval Academy. Gonzales taught his son and grandson to run.
While training kids, he tried to focus on simplicity and mechanics rather than perfection. Pitching is about mindset. Overwhelm students with corrections and you become the enemy, he said.
His methods seem to work, because 30 of the girls he coached went on to earn fastpitch scholarships.
In 2016, Gonzales told The Chronicle he has his wife to thank for the amount of time he dedicated to coaching, saying: “How very fortunate to have a woman like that. Not too many women would allow their husband to be gone that much.”
His wife was a third grade teacher, so while both worked, the two couldn’t be together as often as they would have liked. In retirement, Gonzales says he will finally get the chance to be with her more.
“I love my customers. I had the best of the best in the Northwest. Our people from Centralia and Chehalis and the outskirts, too. The best people I've ever met in my life,” he said, adding later: “Lewis County couldn't have been better for me. Somebody sent me here for a reason.”