For nearly six decades, Marvin Simonson, known affectionately as “Marv the barber,” wielded his scissors in several Columbia Heights shops. He also wielded his generosity, sense of humor, and the fellowship he created to help others. At his funeral on April 20, First Lutheran Church Associate Pastor Jill Bergman said, in her eulogy, “Marvin was always trying to make safe and welcoming dwelling places wherever he landed.”
Marvin Ira Simonson was born June 27, 1933 in Sedan, Minnesota, the middle of three brothers, to parents Selmer and Ida Simonson. He grew up in Coleraine, graduating from Greenway High School in 1951. For a short time he attended Itasca Community College, then worked as a railroad brakeman. In 1953, he and four high school friends enlisted in the army; Marvin went to army cooking school for 3 months and served as a cook at a U.S. Air Force base in England. While there, he bought a bright yellow convertible that he covered with cheeky slogans. He gave the local people a happy image of an American service member. A local British family befriended him and often invited him to their home, where a 50-year friendship began.
Returning to Coleraine after his discharge in 1955, Marvin worked with his family raising minnows, selling them to bait shops across northern Minnesota. The money he earned put him through his first semester of barber school in Minneapolis in 1956. After finishing school in 1957, he began his trade at Ralph’s Barbershop, married Columbia Heights native LeAnn Sonnenberg and bought a house in the Heights. A year later, their daughter Leesa was born. A few years later he opened Marv’s Barbers in the Grand Central building at 44th and Central Aves.
The October 1965 fire that destroyed the Grand Central took Marv’s shop with it. He cut hair in his basement for a short while, then rented a shop at 29th Avenue and Johnson Street. Some customers followed him to the new shop, daughter Leesa Betzold said, “But between the Beatles’ longer hair styles and losing his first shop, business was never the same.” He reopened in Zayre’s Shopper City, built on the Grand Central site, but hedged his bets by studying and passing the realtor exam. His last move as a barber was to a shop on 40th Avenue and 5th Street, next to Roman’s Café, where he remained until 2013.
Betzold recalled, “Marvin was a Jaycee, always up for their fundraising events even though they were hazardous to his health at times. He got kicked in the teeth and broke his dentures while playing basketball on donkeys. Another time, he got a large gash in his leg while volunteering for the dunk tank. It was probably good that the Jaycees had a mandatory retirement age of 30 back then.”
Marvin liked to build things in his oversized garage, and allowed his kids’ high school classmates to build homecoming floats there, five of which won the class competition. He would let friends in need stay in the shop while they got back on their feet, gave small loans to people having a tough time and gave free haircuts to kids of families that couldn’t afford to pay. He often traveled to nursing homes, and sacrificed family time so his older customers who were living at home would have the dignity of getting a fresh haircut during their last days.
Bergman ended her eulogy with these words: “He taught his family not to take more than you need, how to respect nature, and in turn, show respect to God. Marvin used his calling to the best of his ability, using the gifts from God to help others. He loved abundantly and shared generously. He welcomed people whether they had money or not. He created a community in his barber shop.”
With his daughter, he is survived by his son Lee, brother Phillip Simonson, and grandson Ben Betzold.
LeAnn and Marvin Simonson on their 50th wedding anniversary. Marvin as a young man. (Provided photo)