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Joe Donahue, 75, barber to the stars - and the common man

Mr. Donahue had a knack for men's hairstyling. He also had the gift of gab. Customers looked forward to the time spent in his barber's chair.

Ever wonder how Philly’s TV anchors get that not-a-hair-out-of-place look? Many had celebrity barber Joe Donahue to thank.

Mr. Donahue, a prize-winning stylist, plied the scissors from Charle’s Barber Shop in Feasterville for the last five years. Before that, he owned a series of shops in the suburbs, at which he trimmed and sculpted the locks of TV personalities, politicians, and others.

Rabbis, priests, cops, funeral directors, judges, doctors, lawyers, and others flocked to him. When he changed shops, they followed. When they had children, they sent the children to sit in his barber’s chair and hear his stories.

“He was more than a barber to me, to many of us,” said Mike Strug, a retired Channel 10 reporter who began going to Mr. Donahue in 1970. “I never had anybody in my life longer than that.

“He was a raconteur. He had great stories and told jokes. Early on, when the shop was in Jenkintown, I would be in there every couple of weeks. ... You would look forward to it.”

On Friday, Dec. 14, Mr. Donahue, 75, of Northeast Philadelphia, died of cancer at home. He had begun cutting hair as a teenager in 1956 and worked at Charle’s until just before his death, said shop co-owner Mike Martino.

“He was excellent, an awesome guy,” said Martino. “We’re going to miss him a lot.”

His chair at Charle’s remains undisturbed, with cutting and shaving implements intact. “They won’t touch it,” said his wife, Lois Lerner Donahue.

The longtime TV anchor and political commentator Larry Kane said he first met Mr. Donahue in 1970. Over the years, they became close.

“In the years since then, there is only one other time that anyone else cut my hair, and that was when he was sick,” Kane said. “He could be controversial, but he was selective in his arguments with clients. He was jovial and had the respect of people.”

As an anchorman, Kane had to look a certain way. “I think he kept me in style, he was never way out or anything like that,” Kane said. “People expect anchors to be neat and well-groomed. Hair is included in that.”

Born and raised in the Tacony-Wissinoming section of Philadelphia, Mr. Donahue graduated from Father Judge High School.

He learned the trade by cutting his friends’ hair at age 13 in the basement of his home. While still in high school, he worked at his uncle’s barbershop in Torresdale. In his junior year of high school, Mr. Donahue’s father became ill, and the teenager had to become the family breadwinner. So he went to work for a barbershop in Willow Grove called Don’s.

The owner, Don Machia, liked Mr. Donahue’s hair-cutting so much that he had him train the shop’s six other barbers. At age 17, Mr. Donahue went to work at a barbershop in Roslyn.

In 1962, he opened his first barbershop, in Rockledge. He called it Joseph’s, and soon hired a second barber because he wanted to enter hair-styling contests.

In 1964, he won first place at the East Coast Hairstyling Championship in Washington. During the 1966 National Men’s Hairstyling Contest in Detroit, he beat 60 other stylists to win $5,000 and a trophy.

In May 1968, Mr. Donahue won an international men’s hair-styling contest in Boston.

The awards brought Mr. Donahue so much business that in 1969 he opened a bigger shop, the Masculine Touch, in Jenkintown. He was the most requested barber for Latin Casino celebrities in the 1960s and ’70s, his family said.

At the request of the Master Barber Beauticians of America in 1972, Mr. Donahue traveled to Europe demonstrating men’s styling. Back home, he closed the Jenkintown shop and opened another in the Wyncote House.

In 1979, he opened the Joseph Donahue School in Northeast Philadelphia. Twenty-eight of his graduates became stylists nationwide.

In 1987, Mr. Donahue closed the school and moved to Jenkintown, where he opened a barber shop nicknamed the Oval Office. His wife said, “It wasn’t just a barbershop. It was a place to socialize. The guys were the love of his life. It was a love affair. They were like family.”

The Oval Office closed in June 2011 when Mr. Donahue was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. He finished out his career at Charle’s.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Donahue is survived by a daughter, Mae, and three grandchildren.

A life celebration from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, will be followed by an 11 a.m. Funeral Mass at Our Lady of Calvary Church, 11024 Knights Rd. Interment is private.

Donations may be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, Tenn. 38105, or via