Hairstylist shared friendship, faith
Richard Ponsonby will be remembered not only for his skill as a hairstylist, but for the bonds he formed with those who sat in his barber's chair.
Ponsonby, 82, of White Oak died on Tuesday; his health had declined after suffering a stroke 13 months prior.
“His work was his passion,” daughter Kim Ann Ponsonby said. “He didn't just cut hair. He created. He even said at the hospital that he never worked a day in his life. He would talk to people, and the scissors would just start going.
“His clients would look forward to that 30-minute haircut ... It's one thing to be a good barber, but people came in from out of town and their real ‘appointment' was just to visit with my dad.”
Kim Ann Ponsonby of Mt. Washington is one of three siblings — along with Christy Lynn Baker of Jefferson Hills and Richard Mark Ponsonby of McKeesport — who remember their father as a strong, yet gentle man.
“He was definitely the leader of our family,” Kim Ann Ponsonby said. “He grew up with five sisters and one brother. In our household, there were three children. He was definitely a stable figure in our whole family, whether it was in his role as a father, a brother or a friend. Everyone looked up to him.”
Richard Ponsonby came from a long line of barbers and opened his first shop with a partner after serving in the Navy during the Korean War and a short stint as a mill worker. His family described him as a visionary who was determined to make a good life for his wife, Barbara (Olsavsky) Ponsonby, and their children.
For more than 50 years, Richard Ponsonby operated Richard's Family Hair Styling along Versailles Avenue in McKeesport.
In 1954, he opened a classic barbershop with a big storefront window. Twenty years later, he moved the business across the street, where he converted a century-old house into a salon, tanning area and four apartments.
“We love the business and we don't ever want to quit,” Richard Ponsonby told The Daily News in 1996.
Richard's Family Hair Styling remains in business, under the direction of stylist Jim Blank with longtime office staff Carol Thorne and Judy Blank.
“(Richard) taught me everything he knew,” Jim Blank said. “He took me in when I was 19, and I've been here more than 40 years. He's like a father, a friend and a brother — all three wrapped in one.”
Thorne, who also has been a part of Richard's Family Hair Styling for 40-plus years, said Richard Ponsonby also was a mentor to her.
“He has unbelievable relationships with his clients,” she said. “He took as much time as he needed, and people just waited because he was the best.”
Former White Oak police Chief Joe Hoffman was a longtime client and friend.
“I've known Rich since I was 6 years old, which means I've known him for 60 years,” Hoffman said. “He cut my hair once a month at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. It was a ritual.”
The two shared conversations about life's happiness and sadness. Hoffman remembers Ponsonby as a kind man, who deeply loved his wife, his immediate and his extended family.
“Rich was a respected professional in his field, and he will be remembered as a kind and gentle man,” Hoffman said.
Jerry Connelly of North Huntingdon Township met Richard Ponsonby as a client, but a friendship quickly blossomed.
“In that business, you do a lot of talking,” Connelly said. “I used to tell him that if he didn't talk, he could get three appointments in when he had just one.”
Even though Richard Ponsonby was a skilled stylist who kept up with the latest trends, Connelly said, many clients viewed him as one of the last old-time barbers. He cared about his customers, always lending an ear or hand when needed.
Connelly and Bill Wilson of Elizabeth Township visited the Ponsonby household one day before their friend's passing. The three were part of a prayer group at St. Angela Merici Catholic Church.
Years ago, a group of hundreds met at the White Oak parish, but as the group dwindled to little more than a dozen, they began meeting at the Ponsonby house.
“We would go through scripture together and apply that scripture to what he or I or any of us was going through,” Wilson recalled. “We used the Bible as a pathway to help us in our life — in spiritual life, in marriage and in raising children.”
Wilson and Connelly described Richard Ponsonby as a true man of faith. They said his death is a loss to the community, but a spiritual gain for him because he can join his late wife in heaven.
“It is a big loss, because everybody he came in contact with knew he loved the Lord and knew he loved them as much as he loved the Lord,” Wilson said. “His business was just a business at first, but then it became a catalyst for sharing his faith with the people who came in to get their hair cut. It was encouraging and uplifting. It was a ministry.”
Kim Ann Ponsonby said her father was humble and he didn't know the impact he had on others.
“He didn't realize that he was all those things,” she said. “He would be telling it to me as if he was shocked. It would always amaze him when people would say these things about him. He didn't see it that way.”
Friends and family are being received on Friday from 2-8 p.m. at Striffler's of White Oak Cremation and Mortuary Services, 1100 Lincoln Way. A funeral Mass is planned for Saturday at 9 a.m. at St. Angela Merici. Burial will follow.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.