‘ALL ABOARD!’: Beloved barber leaves a legacy of happy clients and friends

Ja’Nene Gillam, daughter of Gary Wiley, looks over her father’s barber chair at his one-of-a-kind barber shop modeled inside a real train caboose. Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

McCORDSVILLE — Chris Prauda knew the drill.

As a longtime client at the McCordsville Barbershop — the one with the authentic train caboose at the southeast corner of Broadway Street and Mount Comfort Road — he knew to kick back in the waiting room until the barber called out “All aboard!,” signaling it was time for the next person to take a turn at the chair.

The Indianapolis man is among the hundreds of loyal clients mourning the loss of Gary Wiley, the man who came up with the plan to create the train-themed barbershop.

Wiley worked his final day on Jan. 8, just three days before receiving the news that the pancreatic cancer he thought he had beaten had spread to his liver.

He had already put his beloved barbershop up for sale when he passed away March 26 at the age of 75.

Wiley first hatched the dream of one day opening such a shop as a student at Indiana Barber College when he and some classmates were helping an instructor clean out some cabooses as a side project one weekend.

After graduating in 1964, Wiley launched his own barbershop at a different location in Indianapolis. He wouldn’t open the train-themed shop until about 15 years later when he bought the current spot in McCordsville.

His daughter, Ja’Nene Gillam, said her father loved what he did and the people he served.

“He loved to work. His form of retirement was cutting back two hours from his normal day, switching from 8 to 6 to 9 to 5,” she recalled with a soft laugh.

Throughout the height of the COVID pandemic, Gillam helped her dad call clients to schedule appointments, a necessary adjustment at the one-man shop that primarily welcomed walk-ins.

“I had 543 clients to call at the time, and that was during COVID when people weren’t getting out of the house. I’d say his clients numbered well over 1,000 over the years,” she said.

Prauda was thrilled to find a local barber that offered old-school services like a simple dry cut. No muss, no fuss. That was Wiley’s specialty.

“I had tried several barbers in the Fishers area when I lived there, and I just never really settled on one. For some reason, with Gary it just felt right,” said Prauda, 52, who had been a client for nearly a decade.

A lot of children felt the same way about the barber with a deep love for trains and railroad memorabilia. His littlest clients loved taking their turn in the Thomas the Tank Engine seat Wiley had reserved just for them.

“He had a model train that he would operate with a remote,” his daughter recalled. “He’d tell the kids, ‘It can only start if you push your nose,’ or, ‘it will only stop if you tug your ear.’ He had a very childlike way about him and connected well with children,” she said.

A man with a dream

Wiley achieved his dream of opening a train-themed barbershop when he acquired the house at the shop’s current location 43 years ago and proceeded to fill it up with toy trains and railroad memorabilia. Clients happily helped the cause by bringing items to add to his collection, like the statues of a little boy shining a customer’s shoes in front of his shop.

In the mid ’90s, the barber was elated to find a cabooses for sale in Evansville.

Wiley quickly set about connecting the caboose to the house that served as his barbershop, and the new space became the seating area where customers passed the time before hearing the “All Aboard!,” summoning the next guest to his antique barber’s chair.

Gillam said that the men at her father’s shop had a habit of sharing their life stories with the man behind the chair.

“A lot of people have told me that my dad helped them through situations by just talking to them. He always treated them like a son or family member,” she said.

Gary Lane started coming to Wiley to get his haircut about 40 years ago, when both men were in their mid-30s. The two of them have enjoyed countless hours of discussions over the years, he said.

“He and I covered an awful lot of territory,” said Lane, 73.

“He was remodeling a house, I was remodeling a house, and we would compare notes. We were raising our kids at the same time,” said the McCordsville man, who lived just down the street from Wiley.

“I used to tell him it was a lot more fun when we were talking about our kids, and now we’re talking about our aches and pains,” recalled Lane, who got his last haircut there in early January, not long before Wiley worked his final shift.

Lane remembers his friend as a good man who loved to talk about his faith.

“You did have to remember though, it was his barbershop and his rules. There was no smoking, no cussing and no loitering. If you crossed him, he threw you out,” Lane fondly recalled.

When the Pokémon GO craze brought a slew of unwelcome visitors to his shop, which game designers had listed as a Pokéstop for players to visit, Wiley made it known that non-paying guests were not welcome.

He and his son successfully petitioned to have the shop removed from the game.

Prauda said Wiley was a wonderful man and a great conversationalist.

“We would have faith-based conversations, but he’d also have a western like ‘The Rifleman’ on in the background,” he recalled.

‘Throwback in time’

As the traffic zipped by the busy intersection outside Wiley’s shop, inside things moved at a slower pace.

“You could almost say it was a little bit of a throwback in time. For me, being in the shop was reminiscent of a time when life was simpler,” Prauda said.

James Schuck started coming to Wiley’s shop as a kid when he and his dad would take turns getting their hair cut by the man who loved trains.

“He had the greatest sense of humor and loved to tease kids. At one time, he had a gold tooth in the front and told me I would grow one if I behaved,” said Schuck, who remembers when Wiley used to drive a Ford Model A pickup with wood signs on the sides, proudly displaying the name of his business.

Schuck returned to the barbershop around 2005 when he moved back to McCordsville, and had been a loyal client ever since.

He loved the fact that his childhood barber would always have either instrumental gospel music or an old-fashioned western playing in the background.

“We would chat about work and family often, but sometimes Gary would relate a story about some colorful character who either didn’t want to wait for everyone else or didn’t like that he was ‘cash only’ or some other issue that caused him to suggest they might be happier taking their business somewhere else,” Schuck recalled.

And of course, there were the trains.

“To say that he loved trains is a masterpiece of understatement,” said Schuck. “He even had a camera pointed at the nearby CSX crossing in McCordsville with a monitor near the barber chair just to keep tabs on the trains going by.”

Gillam said her dad was grateful for the chance to realize his quirky dream of opening a barbershop with a caboose and that he cherished the customers who became friends over the years.

She’s proud to know her dad played such a big part in so many people’s lives.

“One of the things I always heard from customers was, ‘I’ve known your dad for 30, 40, 50 years, and he’s a good man. A Christian man.’ He was always talking about his faith to his customers. Even when my mom told him to keep religion and politics out of it, somehow it would always creep back in,” said Gillam.

“He loved the social aspect of his business, being able to talk to people. I think that’s what kept him going to work. He loved going in and messing around with his trains and sharing that with other people.”

Schuck said the community has lost so much more than just a barber.

“He was a good friend to the area, a good businessman and a man of God. He is going to be sorely missed by so many of us,” he said.