Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Roanoke 'millionaire barber' Earl Doran was handy with scissors ... and stocks

Despite a modest occupation, Earl Doran made millions in the market. His money is being put to good use.

Shelby Tucker cuts hair recently in her barber shop, Corporate Image. She bought the business from Earl Doran, a portion of whose money was recently bequeathed to a local foundation.

SAM DEAN | The Roanoke Times

Shelby Tucker cuts hair recently in her barber shop, Corporate Image. She bought the business from Earl Doran, a portion of whose money was recently bequeathed to a local foundation.

At left is a photo of Earl Doran when he was working at The Hotel Roanoke in the 1950s. At right is Doran in 2005.

At left is a photo of Earl Doran when he was working at The Hotel Roanoke in the 1950s. At right is Doran in 2005.

For 42 years, Earl Doran cut the hair of Roanoke's well-to-do, first in the Hotel Roanoke and, later, in his own Church Avenue barbershop.

He chatted easily and joked frequently (and often bawdily) with them. But judging from the sizable fortune he'd amassed by the time of his death last year at the age of 87, mostly he listened to them talk.

The eighth-grade dropout from southeast Roanoke embodied the great American success story, not by trimming hair for a quarter a pop but by playing the stock market the same way he heard all the bankers, brokers and railroad executives discuss playing it.

"He had a very keen ear," his longtime accountant and friend, Jim Dillon, recalled.

When the Foundation for Roanoke Valley announced the creation of the permanently endowed $1.8 million Earl D. and Carrie Leigh Doran Fund earlier this week, Doran's financial adviser, Ginny Jarrett, remembered the way he used to phone her up from his Catawba Valley small farm and say, "I'm thinking of coming downtown this week. Want to take me to lunch?"

Up he'd pull in his new Bonneville, wearing one of his wide-brimmed hats, and off they'd venture to some ethnic restaurant downtown.

"I always thought of him as the millionaire barber," Jarrett said.

"He taught me to live my life, not just watch it go by."

Savvy investor

His beloved wife, Carrie, was the one who first dipped her toe into the world of investing. A downtown bank teller, she purchased bank shares through payroll deduction. Modest earnings combined with frugal living served as the jumping-off point for the Dorans' strategic investing, usually in American companies.

Oil made sense to the barber, especially Exxon stock, friends recalled. So did utility companies. And though he never once checked an email account, Doran bought and sold Apple stock to great effect.

Doran had grown up in the Riverdale section of southeast, the son of an American Viscose worker who sent four sons to war and taught them such aphorisms as, "If you can't save a nickel, you won't save a dime." He picked up the barbering trade cutting hair for his Army buddies - and sent what little cash he made doing it back home to help his family, recalled his nephew, Darryl Doran of Roanoke.

When his wife died of cancer in 1986, Doran carefully plotted the sale of his 50-acre Catawba property. He took up gourmet cooking and traveling after retirement in 1988, touring Europe and China with friends, and riding camels around the pyramids of Egypt.

At The Glebe retirement community in Botetourt County, where he lived his final years, friends and staffers called him "the mayor."

Sales and marketing director Katherine Morris recalled him flirting with her 90-year-old mother, holding court at breakfast and inviting friends to partake of his bourbon collection after dinner.

With no children of his own, Doran thought long before his death about the good works his fortune could do, giving money away to Shriners hospitals and the National D-Day Memorial. An infantryman who landed in the second wave of troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day, Doran donated $25,000 in 2005 for a memorial plaque to honor a fallen soldier and friend. As their division moved inland through the hedgerows, Staff Sgt. Wendell Bray was shot between the eyes and fell on top of Doran, literally dying in his arms.

"He always thought that bullet was meant for him, but the other guy took it," said Shelby Tucker, who bought the Church Avenue barbershop from Doran, now called Corporate Image.

Doran gave generously to the memorial's education program and was sometimes seen sitting in the back during presentations, making himself available if middle schoolers had questions about the life of an infantryman in World War II.

Captain of his own fate

When Tucker tells Roanoke's aging elite about the barber's bequests, they clap their hands and say "marvelous!" They're proud to know he's left a lasting mark.

"Most of them have no idea that he became wealthy," Tucker said.

"But he was very, very smart."

She retained most of Doran's clients after he sold the shop to her for the token price of $1,500, always reminding her that "he'd paved the streets of heaven with gold" for her. (He bequeathed to her his wife's diamond dinner ring and two decorative antique pots he'd kept from his Hotel Roanoke shop.)

Doran liked to buy cattle in the spring, let them feed off his land in Catawba, then sell them in the fall - and use the profit to fund his international travel. On a slow day at the shop, he used to call the businessmen at their desks and urge them to get a haircut. "You're walking around with my money in your pocket," he'd say.

If Doran learned the ins and outs of investing from his clients, he considered himself a consultant to those he barbered. One of Fincastle lawyer Don Wetherington's favorite Doran-isms had to do with choosing women:

It was his opinion that the finest ladies could be found singing in the church choir. But Doran cautioned against choosing the prettiest one, who was bound to be trouble. "He'd skip one more, just for good measure, and settle on the third prettiest," Wetherington recalled, because she was sure to be a nice lady and pretty enough.

Foundation for Roanoke Valley director Alan Ronk said Doran had strong opinions about how to bequeath his money when he first approached the foundation in 1996. Ronk wouldn't reveal the exact recipients of the Doran Fund but said the foundation's instructions were to help battered women as well as people suffering through life-altering events. The first grants will be disbursed in 2012.

His parting gift to his estate beneficiaries was to die on New Years Day 2010 - the day a new law raising the threshold for estate taxes took effect.

"As careful as he was, I'm sure he planned it that way," Jarrett said. "He was the captain of his own fate, he really was."

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