Ken Porwoll is 89 years old. Every week for the past 25 years he has gone downtown to cut hair for clients at Listening House, a day and evening shelter and community center that provides hospitality, practical assistance and counsel to people who are homeless, disadvantaged, or lonely. It is located in downtown St. Paul.
A retired salesperson, Porwoll said in a telephone interview, that he first became interested in Listening House when he read a newspaper article. Curious, he stopped in to visit. He said, “ I wanted to see how the nuns would deal with the street people.”
Porwoll described his first visit to Listening House, watching as a woman cut a man’s hair with a “four inch grade school scissors.” as he described the scene. After the haircut, Porwoll said, “The guy [after the haircut] looked like Bucky Beaver, but he was happy as a lark. ”
Porwoll has nine children including five sons. He had always cut his boys’ hair and when the woman asked him, “Would you cut a head of hair?” Ken was touched by the request, and agreed to come in and give haircuts.
Before he ever started as a volunteer, word had gotten around and on the first day he said, “There was a line-up waiting for me.” To this day, Porwoll attracts people who come in wanting their hair cut . Some have come from as far away as Los Angeles, and have just arrived in town. By word of mouth they learn about “the old guy who cuts hair if they stop by.”
Porwoll served in the Philippines during World War II and spent three and a half years years as a prisoner of war (POW). He compares his experience as a POW to the people who come to Listening House. He said he can relate to them because, “I understand what they’re going through… being chased from pillar to post.” He said that when he was a POW, “my own people didn’t want me, the Japanese didn’t want me.”
On Thursday, August 27, at a special ceremony in Minneapolis, Porwoll received the McKnight Foundation’s Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service, along with five other nominees . The award is given annually to individuals who selflessly serve their communities.
Julie Borgerding is Program Director at Listening House. In an e-mail she wrote, “Ken is an amazing human being.” She said when clients receive haircuts from Porwoll, it does much for their self esteem. “Whether one is going for a job interview… or contemplating another drink, improvement in self esteem can make a HUGE difference“ said Borgerding. “Getting a haircut can be the impetus to get over the hurdle.”
Borgerding said that the other piece is Ken and his life story. “He is a strong, compassionate man in a community that starves for this role model…He gets time alone with them and can listen, put a hand on their shoulder and sometimes challenge their way of thinking.”
She added, “Then there is the 25 years. Some people who use us as a community center have been coming to see Ken for many years. In sometimes chaotic lives, Ken has been a consistent and caring presence.”
Not long ago, he cut the hair of two men from Ethiopia , who had walked 300 miles to get out of the war-ravaged country , and eventually came to St. Paul. As they left they said to him, “God has been good to us.” Porwoll responded, “God has been good to me, too.”
Porwoll’s wife, Mary Ellen, and all of their children and spouses will attend the awards ceremony. The Porwolls live in Roseville.
Mary Thoemke (firstname.lastname@example.org), a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a freelance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
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