Best of Portland 2012: Best People

Best Nonagenarian Barber

Wayne Smith's advanced age—he'll turn 91 in July—is evident from the second you walk into his yellowing barbershop tucked away in the heart of St. Johns. His hair is completely white and the lenses in his glasses are beer-bottle thick. He moves around his shop with a steady shuffle, scuffing the soles of his black sneakers. And his hands visibly shake as he throws a cape over a customer or daubs shaving cream on the neckline and sideburns for a final cleanup with a straight razor.

But when he homes in on a head of hair, Smith's hands and eyes steady and the results are as clean, tidy and perfect as a cut you might pay three times as much for elsewhere. By this point, it's second nature to him: When I went in for a long-overdue cut recently, he knocked it out in about 15 minutes.

Credit that to the simple fact that Smith has trimmed the locks of thousands of men since he started his career as a barber during World War II.

His first job came aboard the USS California, the battleship that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, where he worked in its six-chair barbershop. After his discharge in 1945, Smith returned to his native Portland and opened a shop in St. Johns a year later.

He's been in his current location (8713 N Lombard St.) since 1956, and these days he keeps a steady schedule: 8 am to noon Tuesdays through Saturdays. He has no plans to stop any time soon, not even to take a vacation.

"I used to take a week off every year," Smith says matter-of-factly as he sets the clippers to my thick locks. "But all my customers know I'm here at a certain time, and if I'm not, they just won't get their hair cut." ROBERT HAM.

Best Everyday Superhero

TriMet driver Larry Porter was the most talked-about man in the country for one night in May. On a Wednesday afternoon, Porter, 48, was about to begin his route when he saw a man by the side of the road beating a woman. He called 911, but for two minutes, he watched with growing anxiety. He yelled that the police were coming, but that just made the man punch harder. Feeling he had to do something, Porter pulled the bus over. At 5-foot-10 and over 300 pounds, he needed barely any effort to knock the man flat on his back. Then he easily pinned him down for the 20 minutes it took the police to arrive. The story made the night's news and got syndicated across the country. Porter says friends called from out of town, but the attention became too intense for this accidental hero, and he and his wife had to leave town for a weekend. "It's like I told my boss," Porter said: "I'm not looking for a pat on the back." ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.

Best Parent-Teacher Association Revival

In a neighborhood experiencing increasing changes in demographics and culture, Northeast Portland's King School (4906 NE 6th Ave.) fights to survive. And the Parent Teacher Association is a huge reason why it's still alive. Over the last four years, King's PTA went from nonexistent to a nearly 40-member group that's actively involved in all facets—from academic achievement, to communication with the Portland Public Schools board, to hosting conversations on racial barriers within the school and community. "It's part of the crisis mode around this school," says PTA president Trace Salmon. Even though the Obama administration recently chose King to be one of eight schools nationwide to participate in the Turnaround Arts Initiative, which aims to test the importance of arts in academia, the school still faces a long-fought battle with low enrollment rates and a lingering negative reputation. But through hard work and an uncountable number of hours, the progressively powerful PTA is growing the voice it needs to be heard, and the community is starting to listen. EMILEE BOOHER.

Best Lizard Lover

A few misconceptions exist regarding the power Thuyn Pham allegedly holds over reptiles. Among visitors to his store, Rose City Reptiles (3609 SE Division St.), the diminutive Vietnamese expat has earned a reputation as a kind of lizard whisperer.

Pham laughs. "It looks like it's true, but it's not," says the convivial, lightly whiskered 55-year-old, standing among the cages of snakes, frogs, spiders and other creatures that fill his tiny hole-in-the-wall on Southeast Division Street. To demonstrate, he reaches into a tank and gently lifts a small, bearded dragon into his palm. He flips the lizard upside down on the counter and gives its belly a rub. It immediately falls unconscious. As Pham explains, when placed on its back, the pressure on the critter's brain causes it to pass out. It's not meta-spiritual interspecies empathy; it's simple biology. "We'll just keep that whispering between you and me," he says, letting out another amused chuckle.

So he isn't quite Dr. Dolittle. Still, when it comes to the animal kingdom's scaly class, Pham knows his stuff. His interest developed at a young age. Growing up in Saigon, he would catch native snakes by scooping them up in a baseball cap. After the war ended in 1975, his family immigrated to Portland. He opened Rose City Reptiles at its original Lloyd Center location 14 years ago, moving to the Division neighborhood in 2002.

Although he's made a living helping newbies figure out which creepy-crawly thing is best for them—and, as a natural-born mischief maker, occasionally freaking them out by putting a live scorpion in his mouth—Pham doesn't actually own any himself. It's a matter of maintaining emotional distance. "You get attached to one animal or the other, and then it won't stop," Pham says. He admits that he'd eventually like a pet of his own, though. "I'm thinking about getting a dog." MATTHEW SINGER.

Best Rock 'n' Roll Barber

Dan Ross has been cutting hair for 35 years, but you need only look to the walls of his cluttered shop on Southeast Gladstone Street to know that, while barbering's always been his job, it's not his true vocation. There, enjoying pride of place between the mirror and the coat rack, hangs a platinum record: John Cougar Mellencamp's 1983 Uh Huh, for which Ross wrote the song "Play Guitar." Ask him how he came to write the song, though, and you won't get much of an answer.

"The usual way," says the 60-year-old. "I got a pen, and some paper. I already knew how to play guitar. Then I sent out a lot of demos."

Ross' musical career predates his work for Mellencamp. In the '70s, he played guitar and pedal steel with the very talented but critically ignored prog-folk-rock band Sand, which included two future members of Quarterflash. Sand released two albums, both of which have since been re-released by 

When Sand's members went their separate ways, Ross moved to the East, where lived when he wrote the Mellencamp track. He eventually returned to the Northwest, running a barbershop in Oregon City for "a long-ass time." In 2007, he opened Barber Dan's Gladstone Street Barber Shop (3811 SE Gladstone St.,, between Gladstone Pizza and the Gladstone Pub. (The Gladstone neighborhood is only two blocks long, but its citizens are fiercely patriotic.) He gives very good, if sometimes time-consuming, haircuts, and he charges just $14, which makes him a favorite of Reed students. “It’s the young people who keep small businesses going,” he says. 

Ross hasn't let the years slow down his musical ambitions. It's not uncommon to walk into the shop and find him playing guitar, and he treats his customers to an ongoing music-appreciation course: His regular stereo rotation includes Portuguese fado, old-school bluegrass and obscure Tom Waits recordings from the '70s. He released a solo album, The Illusion, in 2010, and is working on another. But he doesn't expect he'll stop barbering any time soon.

"John and me, we're the same age," Ross says. "But he's got so much goddamn money it doesn't bother him so much, and I'm still cutting hair." BEN WATERHOUSE.

Best Cosmic Career Coach 

Judge career coach Aubrie de Clerck, if you will, for a professional decision she made last year: After considerable success with her career coaching practice, Coaching for Clarity (, she decided to apprentice with an astrologer. Now, as her clients ponder job changes, they can add their personal natal charts to the mix. "It gets to the heart of the matter really quickly," says de Clerck, "more so than any other tool I have seen."

De Clerck had enjoyed a good reputation for her four years in the career-coaching community. Prior to that, she had gained street cred for her stint at Nike, working as project manager and business analyst, at one point heading up a company-wide survey (translated into seven languages) to gauge employees' satisfaction with their work. De Clerck was fixated on the idea that people find purpose in day jobs.

A couple years into her coaching practice, she began to give talks alongside Portland-based astrologer Emily Trinkaus, where they discussed planetary transits in relation to the job search. Trinkaus encouraged de Clerck to add astrology to the coaching practice.

It was a bold move. Both career coaching and astrology have a bad rap for vagueness, but in de Clerck's hands, the approach comes across as oddly scientific. A natal chart is an incredibly complex combination of signs, nodes and planets, all angled off to each other, unique to a person's moment of birth; when a natal chart is laid over the current shifts of the planets, there's meaning. Dense, nuanced meaning. Meaning you're better off hiring a professional to sort through.

Not convinced? De Clerck points out that, broadly speaking, we're all experiencing Pluto (the shadowy planet of death and rebirth) and its presence in Capricorn (the sign of business and economy, among other things). Pluto brings days of reckoning. Since it's in Capricorn, that means we might suddenly recognize, oh, entire economic systems that are faulty or doomed. We might experience some financial upsets here and there—on a personal level, perhaps, and worldwide.

Luckily, this should only last for the next 16 years or so. And it's a little bit different for everyone. SAUNDRA SORENSON.

Best Backseat Driver

In the arts world, big stars and splashy productions tend to take the spotlight, but a lot of important work happens behind the scenes. For the last 16 years, George Thorn has been quietly but tenaciously working under the radar to help Portland's leading arts organizations hit their strides, grow and thrive.

Formerly a New York City-based theater producer, Thorn moved to Portland in 1996 and began counseling arts professionals through Arts Action Research (, a consulting business he runs with business partner Nello McDaniel. Thorn works mostly with small and medium-sized nonprofits across the gamut of visual arts, dance, theater and music. In all, he has helped more than 100 organizations, largely through an ongoing relationship with the Regional Arts and Culture Council. He doesn't get involved in programming decisions, instead offering expertise in the less glamorous but equally vital matters that keep arts groups afloat: strategic planning, fundraising, and wrangling boards of directors. It's a challenging job, but it's also a labor of love and longstanding civic commitment; Thorn and his wife, Nancy, a former Broadway dancer and choreographer, were founding board members of the dance troupe White Bird, where they continue to serve as vice presidents.

At 76, this savvy, articulate dynamo shows no signs of slowing down, with a roster of 20 active projects, among them Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, Fear No Music, Triangle Productions, 45th Parallel, Shaking the Tree and Jewish Theatre Collaborative. With all of the outfits he advises, Thorn's dual mission to help organizations stay within their budgets and to encourage younger arts lovers to support the arts as older philanthropists fade away. "The ecology of arts and culture here is diverse, complex, and expanding," Thorn observes. "The question is, how do we recognize, support, and celebrate that expansion? It's not just a matter of money." Portland's art scene, he believes, could learn a thing or two from its culinary scene. "As a city, we take great pride in our restaurants, food carts, farmers markets, wineries, and breweries.... If we had the same pride in our arts and culture, we would be better able to build long-term support for this terrific community." RICHARD SPEER.

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