What's the buzz about 2020 from Oprah's dad's barbershop?
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NASHVILLE — On this block, Vernon Winfrey is the famous one.
A lean and gentle-spoken man, with dark blue-rimmed eyes and a gray-specked goatee, Winfrey has cut hair on Lischey Avenue for 52 years.
A street in the East Nashville neighborhood is named in his honor.
And his barbershop, a red brick building with maroon awnings, is a place where stories draw out all afternoon.
People in this area of town get their hair cut here as boys and come back when they are men.
And when they do, they are greeted with a kind word from the man whose name is on the window.
“No one enters or leaves without a hello and a handshake,” Winfrey says, flashing a bright white smile.
Of course, there are a few other nods to fame here.
On the wall, there’s a photo of a young Oprah Winfrey, dressed boldly in a red blazer, her arms raised enthusiastically.
On a table near the door, next to the Tennessee Tribune, is a copy of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Vernon Winfrey is Oprah’s father.
And, before you ask, no, he does not know if she is going to run for president.
Though, admiring his daughter as he does, he believes she would be great at it.
At Sunday night’s Golden Globes, Oprah, a television icon and former Nashville resident, delivered a fiery speech that left many inspired and musing about possible intentions to run for political office.
Vernon Winfrey was as surprised and inspired by it as anyone.
“In a sense, she was getting some things off her chest,” he says. “She came off differently. I think it was fitting.”
But no one — not even dad — knows if Oprah will declare a bid for the presidency.
Speaking backstage at the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah Winfrey says the ‘Time’s Up’ movement isn’t just for the privileged, it’s for every “culture, race, religion, politic or workplace.”
‘We welcome the challenge’
News reports and social media feeds since Sunday night have been saturated with #Oprah2020 talk.
President Trump, who plans to run for re-election in 2020, said he would welcome a challenge from Oprah Winfrey, should it come to that.
He delivered the comments as he headed to Nashville on Monday to speak at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 99th Annual Convention.
“We welcome the challenge, whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else,” Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters Monday aboard Air Force One, according to a transcript of the press briefing.
Trump, however, did not reference Oprah during his 40-minute speech in Nashville.
Her best friend, Gayle King, said Oprah Winfrey isn’t “actively considering’ a presidential run 2020, but it has piqued her interest.
“I do think she’s intrigued by the idea. I do think that,” King, a co-host of CBS This Morning, said on Tuesday’s broadcast of the show. “She loves this country and would like to be of service in some way, but I don’t think that she’s actively considering it.”
‘She’s climbing, always has been’
In Winfrey’s barbershop, conversations span everything from the weather to sports — Vernon Winfrey has a special love of boxing, with paintings, photos and newspaper clippings decorating the walls.
Politics, of course, occasionally comes into the mix.
“Hillary vs. Oprah?” ponders a barber at the shop who goes by the name Hollywood.
“I’ll pick Oprah.”
It would be eye-opening, he says. Not only would Oprah be the first woman president but the first black female president.
“She is climbing,” he says. “Always has been.”
Vernon Winfrey remembers his daughter in her time living in Nashville. She moved to Tennessee to live with him when she was 12. Even then, so much came easy to her.
The honor roll in high school, her role as a reporter on News Channel 5, her talk show.
“She has never really been challenged,” he says.
Would becoming president be a challenge?
“I believe it might be,” Vernon smiles.
‘My first choice’
Even Trump has talked highly of Oprah in the past.
When Trump contemplated running for president as an independent in 1999, he told talk-show host Larry King that Winfrey would be his top choice for running mate.
“I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice,” Trump said to King. “If she’d do it, she’d be fantastic. I mean, she’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman.”
When Trump announced his campaign in 2015, he reiterated that opinion.
“I think Oprah would be great. I’d love to have Oprah,” Trump said during an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC. “I think we’d win easily, actually.”
Be the change
Since Oprah’s speech on Sunday, there have been some who have said it has been misconstrued.
It wasn’t meant to set the stage for #Oprah2020, it was meant to inspire each of us to step up and stand up for what we believe. To see the change we hope for and chase it — ourselves.
“I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Winfrey said Sunday, specifically referencing sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
“And when that new day finally dawns it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight and some pretty phenomenal men fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.”
Lt. Thomas Walker, Vernon’s son and the second of three generations in the barbershop, hasbeen a law enforcement officer for 30 years.
In his profession, he works for justice and equality. Oprah’s speech — and all the women-led movements surrounding it — he believes will make a difference beyond just the presidential chatter.
“I think it has given females a better platform, a bigger voice than they had before,” he says. “They were already heard, but now they are being taken more seriously, and men are going to stop and listen.”
And that is not just limited to the future for little girls.
“It’s not one gender, one race or one class,” he says.
It’s everyone, even the folks in this barbershop.
‘I want to commend her’
As the clock on the wall ticks later into the afternoon Thursday, Vernon Winfrey surveys his small shop.
He will turn 85 at the end of this month, his birthday falling two days after his daughter’s.
In all those years, he has come to love this neighborhood, this place. He comes to the shop just three days a week now, but he has slowed down only a little. On his days off in the spring, he digs in his garden where he grows turnip greens and peppers.
It’s what keeps this former Mississippian young — fresh air and homegrown food.
And good friends.
On this particular day, Winfrey has a special visitor in his shop.
Leroy McMurray, a man who used to live on the block, “walking down the street and stepping so sharp you could cut yourself on the creases of his pants,” his niece Anita McMurray says.
Now 94 years old and without most of his sight, McMurray still comes back here for a freshening up.
As Winfrey runs the clippers across McMurray’s remaining wisps of white hair, they catch up, talking about old times.
Eventually, the conversation comes around to Winfrey’s famous daughter.
“Did you call your daughter like you said the other night?” McMurray asks his old friend.
“All I could do is leave a message,” Winfrey replies. “I wanted to commend her. It was spoken very well.”
“They’re still talking about it,” McMurray says with a chuckle.
“Yeah,” Winfrey boasts, “talking about making her president.”
“And,” he adds with a sly grin, “making me vice president.”
Follow Jessica Bliss on Twitter: @JLBliss