This Saturday, Island stalwart Benito Mancinone, known to generations of Islanders as “Benny,” will be back in his former Oak Bluffs barber shop on Circuit Avenue that still bears his name. For the first time since he quietly slipped into retirement and left the Island in 2013, Mr. Mancinone will be cutting hair from 9 am to 12 pm for a minimum $40 dollar donation, to raise money for the Joseph Jerome Memorial Foundation (JJMF). Keeping with his long-standing tradition, Mr. Mancinone will not take appointments.
Former Edgartown School principal and longtime chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, Ed Jerome, a close friend of Benny’s, started the JJMF in memory of his son Joseph, who died last September after a long illness, at the age of 24.
“The foundation was created to help Island families with chronically ill children afford the high cost of taking them to Boston for treatment,” Mr. Jerome said. “It’s unique to Islanders, the many trips, the ambulances. They might be in the hospital 50, 75 nights a year. It can create tremendous financial strain. Meanwhile, you have no idea if and when your child will get well.” Mr. Jerome said when his son Joe was receiving care in Boston, it sometimes required him and his wife Maryann to alternate five-day stays in the city while raising another child back on the Island.“It’s a difficult situation you don’t understand unless you’ve been there,” he said.
Mr. Jerome said that there are no strings attached to the assistance from JJMF and there’s no application process. “This is a fund where we try to find those folks who are too proud to say anything,” he said. He and other board members will rely on the Island grapevine, as well as local health care professionals, teachers, and counselors, to find families in need. “It’s all done very quietly,” he said. “Nobody’s going to know.”
“Ed was the first friend I made when I moved to Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Mancinone said in his thick Italian accent in a phone interview with The Times. Mr. Mancinone moved to the Island in 1991, responding to a letter that he received the day after he was forced to close his Springfield restaurant. “I had to figure out what to do to take care of my family,” he said. “The next day, this letter arrives, asking licensed barbers to apply to Cottage City Barbershop on Martha’s Vineyard.” Mr. Mancinone was the first person to respond. He got the job and moved his family to the Island, and he soon met Mr. Jerome.
“Ed taught me everything about fishing, except he doesn’t give up his secret spots,” Mr. Mancinone said.
“I’m Italian, he’s Italian, we hit it right off. It became a great friendship,” Mr. Jerome said.
Mr. Mancinone and Mr. Jerome fished together often over the years, especially during the Derby. “Benny and I fished before work. He would go to his shop and I would go to school,” Mr. Jerome, said. “I caught some nice fish, 34-pound stripers fishing with Ed,” Mr. Mancinone said. “But 11 years fishing the Derby, I never got a bite, not even a bite. My wife was starting to wonder if I was really fishing.”
Under new management
Last year, after 22 years in his Circuit Ave shop, Mr. Mancinone sold his business to his longtime employee and de facto daughter Tracy Briscoe and her brother, Jason Gruner.
“He was Papa Benito,” Ms. Briscoe said fondly. “He never called me Tracy. It was either ‘that girl’ or ‘Fifi.’”
Ms. Briscoe worked almost every summer with Benny after he took over the shop and worked some winters as well. She originally hatched the idea for Saturday’s fundraiser.
“I adore the Jerome family,” Ms. Briscoe said. “I cut Joe’s hair when he was a boy. I watched him grow up. It’s a win-win to raise money for the Jerome’s foundation and bring back Benny at the same time.”
Saturday will mark the first time Benny will see the top to bottom renovation Ms. Briscoe and Mr. Gruner made to the shop over the winter. Per Benny’s wishes, they kept the barber shop spirit intact. They also redid the floor and the walls and added some modern touches like flat screen TVs and a popcorn machine. Still, Benny’s imprint is everywhere. The original barber poll still spins outside the window in which his old barber chair sits. A 1954 clock from his Springfield shop with inverted numbering — so clients can read it in the mirror — hangs on the wall.
“People that didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Benny now have the chance,” Ms. Briscoe said. Very few people knew Mr. Mancinone was retiring and moving to Connecticut. Which is the way he wanted it. “I hate saying goodbye,” he said. “It makes me very sad. But I’m really looking forward to seeing Ed and the rest of the guys.” Mr. Mancinone said he’ll cut hair at least until 12 noon, depending on how his recently replaced knee holds up. “I’ll go as long as I can,” he said. “Then when I can’t work no more, I’ll just tell them to give me the money. Give me 60 or 100 bucks. It’s for a great cause.”