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Beloved barber of official — and unofficial — Washington has died

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The walls of Diego D'Ambrosio's hair salon in Washington, D.C., are covered in photos of his more renowned clients - ambassadors, prime ministers, Supreme Court justices. No matter who you were, for the 30 minutes you sat in his barber chair, you were just as important to him.

MIKE SILVERSTEIN: You walked in there, and you felt that you were special. And everyone who walked out, it was - ciao and a big wave.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Diego D'Ambrosio died Friday. He was 87 years old. That voice you just heard is Mike Silverstein, his customer of more than 20 years.

SILVERSTEIN: He started cutting my hair when it was a different color and there was a whole lot more of it.

MCCAMMON: D'Ambrosio emigrated from Italy 60 years ago. Soon after, he set up shop in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood and quickly became a local fixture. Silverstein served on the neighborhood commission that helped rename the street in front of the hair salon Diego D'Ambrosio Way.

SILVERSTEIN: He became, really, the unofficial mayor and grandfather of Dupont Circle and just one of the most beloved figures in Washington.

CHANG: That was particularly true for members of the Supreme Court. His clients included former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and current Justice Samuel Alito.

SILVERSTEIN: The closeness that he had with members of the court was probably better than that of most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (laughter). They didn't get to see him every three weeks.

CHANG: Diego D'Ambrosio treated all of his customers with an old-school sort of respect. He worked in a shirt and tie, and up until the pandemic, he would offer espresso to the morning's first customers.

MCCAMMON: Another stylist in the shop, Mario Acuna, says D'Ambrosio tutored younger barbers on etiquette.

MARIO ACUNA: So, for example, in my case, if I called someone - how are you, my friend? He would go, like, no, how are you, sir? (Laughter).

CHANG: He was always joking. Acuna says D'Ambrosio had a routine for new customers calling in.

ACUNA: They're saying, I want to have a haircut. It's going to be my first time, but who's the good one here? And he would say, everybody but not Diego (laughter).

MCCAMMON: Diego's son Fabrizio D'Ambrosio says he brought that playfulness home with him.

FABRIZIO D'AMBROSIO: Very often, he would fall asleep in front of the TV, and when my brother and I were little, we'd stick a teaspoon full of pepper under his nose (laughter). He would get up and feign an exaggerated sneeze because he knew it was coming.

MCCAMMON: Diego D'Ambrosio worked almost until the last day of his life, cutting hair while using a walker. Fabrizio and his brother Marco tried to convince their father to cut back, take some days off, but he brushed that aside.

F D'AMBROSIO: It was never time for him to retire, you know, despite repeated (laughter) - despite repeated attempts.

CHANG: In an interview with Voice of America years ago, Diego D'Ambrosio summed it up this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIEGO D'AMBROSIO: When you find you have the job you love, you'll never be tired and never be old.

CHANG: Diego D'Ambrosio died of a heart attack, according to his son Fabrizio. The salon is still open this week. His station has become a bit of a shrine. Customers drop in and leave flowers. Some of them cry.

MCCAMMON: Fabrizio D'Ambrosio says they're going to try to keep the shop open. It's what his father would have wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TRAGICALLY HIP SONG, "GRACE, TOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.