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Our Neighbors.... Jim 'Congo' Jurek

Jim "Congo" Jurek never thought he'd be a barber. He never thought about it at all. In fact, he never even went to a barber until later in his life.

Jim "Congo" Jurek never thought he'd be a barber. He never thought about it at all. In fact, he never even went to a barber until later in his life.

"My dad cut my hair, and I went around with a flat top most of the time," he said. Little did he know he would someday achieve notoriety for his skills in that particular hairstyle.

But first, growing up in Cloquet, Jurek lived for hockey. He started playing at age six and continued all the way through high school, playing for the Lumberjacks mainly as a forward from 1972-1974.

When the first indoor hockey arena was built and opened in Cloquet in 1970, Jurek was there. He even helped with the construction, specifically pouring the footings, when he was in eighth grade.

"Before that we just played hockey outside," he said. "So getting an arena was a big, big deal."

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His high school team did fairly well, but won no titles or major championships.

"We were the first team to beat Duluth East High School," bragged Jurek. "It's about our only claim to fame."

After graduating from high school in 1974, Jurek continued to play hockey on a league team. He refereed and coached for three years as well.

Jurek also worked in construction at that time. He was an apprentice and then built houses, along with some roofing and siding work.

"It was a bad time to be in construction," he said. "I worked with a guy who started his own company and that went down; we started putting in kitchens and later that went kaput, too. By that time it didn't matter though because my kidneys failed."

On Feb. 3, 1985, Jurek was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room to discover he suffered from congestive heart failure .

"Doctors came out and asked my dad how long my kidneys had been shut down," Jurek said. "That was scary. They didn't think I was going to make it."

Jurek hadn't been feeling well for a few months prior to that, but he said he didn't know what was wrong.

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"I just thought I had pneumonia or the flu," he said.

A year or two earlier, he had been diagnosed with a rare disease called Henoch-Schonlein purpura (HSP), an inflammatory disorder, but he didn't think it was related to his current sickness. The disease typically causes a triad of symptoms, including a rash on the lower extremities, abdominal pain and arthritis.

"They treated me and everything seemed to be fine," he said.

Usually diagnosed in children, Jurek was one of the oldest people ever diagnosed with HSP.

"I was so old when I contracted it," he said. "I was sort of a medical mystery and had my photo taken and my story put in medical journals."

No one knows how or why Jurek got the disease, but doctors linked his kidney failure to the HSP and soon Jurek began dialysis.

"I knew about it [HSP] but I didn't know it would end up this way," he said. "My HSP was just something they [doctors] couldn't stop. I guess it was just fate."

Jurek suddenly found himself undergoing dialysis three days per week.

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"Sometimes dialysis would take all day," he said. "I'd feel sick before and afterward and maybe I'd have a good day on Sunday."

Jurek said coping with his situation took some time.

"I went through some anger," he admitted. "Then I came back out and went on."

At about this time, he realized he needed to find a job that could work around his dialysis. While recovering from heart failure, Jurek began walking for exercise and often visited a friend in Cloquet who was a barber.

"I'd stop in on my walks," he said. "I realized that if I was a barber, I could set my own hours and be my own boss. It seemed like the most independent job I could get."

So he moved to Minneapolis in 1986 and enrolled in the Minnesota School of Barbering on East Lake Street. At the end of the nine-month program, Jurek was given a job tip from one of the owners.

"She sent me over to Dick's Barber Shop in Minneapolis - 'home of the flat top'," he said.

He began doing a lot of flat top haircuts, which he had perfected during classes at school.

"I had done flat tops in competitions," he said. "That's why I got sent over there for the job."

Jurek and the staff at Dick's even made the Star Tribune in May 1991 for what Jurek and his colleagues called their "cranial graphics."

A photo ran in the paper of Jurek giving a man a flat top with the North Stars hockey team logo etched into the back of his head. A local television station taped it as well, and it was subsequently the opening clip of a national broadcast on NBC news.

"Tom Brokaw opened the newscast with it," Jurek said.

During this time, Jurek received his first kidney transplant. It didn't go well, according to Jurek. He felt ill quite often and spent many nights at the University of Minnesota hospital. He spent so much time there that he won a popularity contest of sorts.

"They elected me mayor of 5C," he said of the hospital unit. "I was certainly there often enough."

He worked at Dick's intermittently and ended up back on dialysis waiting for another kidney.

"Dick was good about it," he said.

Jurek waited over five years for the next kidney and while he waited, he decided to move back to Cloquet in 1993. A friend had a shop and asked if he'd like to work there.

"I wanted to get back to Cloquet and out of the big city," he said.

He returned to Cloquet and set up shop on Cloquet Avenue in the same location as Jim's Barber Shop (Congo's) is today. A second kidney transplant followed and to help him recover, he threw himself into building a new hockey arena for the city.

"I used building that arena as therapy," he said. "I went out there every day after work. It got me going and doing stuff and I was able to build up my strength again."

It kept his mind off worrying about his health.

"It made me feel like I was doing something meaningful," he said.

The Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association showed their appreciation with a plaque "proudly recognizing" Jurek's help in 2001.

It reads, "Thank you for contributing countless hours of volunteer service. Not for social or monetary profit or gain. Done simply for love of the game."

Since that time, Jurek has remained connected to the local hockey scene, most recently with Cloquet High School's hockey program. This past season, he was the game manager for the high school games, coordinating workers in everything from ticket sales to crowd control to the penalty box.

He ran the 2004 State Bantam Hockey Tournament and is a past member of the Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association. His barber shop space is filled with hockey paraphernalia. Some of the posters, photos, artwork and equipment were gifts, some are his personal memorabilia and some he purchased to benefit hockey associations.

"I'm not involved as I used to be," he admitted.

One of the reasons he may not be quite as involved as in the past is a newer interest - the theater.

A friend invited him to see "Les Miserables" years ago and Jurek reportedly said, "Sure."

"I was amazed and fell in love with everything live," he said.

He's now seen over 100 shows all over the state, at venues such as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, the Duluth Playhouse and the County Seat Theater Company in Atkinson.

He is a current sponsor of the County Seat Theater's production of "The Frog Prince."

"It's a nice change from hockey and it's nice to mix it up," Jurek said.

Nearly six years ago, Jurek needed another kidney transplant. This time, his brother's kidney matched and he donated it to Jurek.

"This is the best one I've had," he said. "I knew so much by the time I went in for this transplant, they were able to throw me back out in no time," he chuckled.

Jurek tracks all of his medications, bloodwork tests and knows when something with his health isn't right.

"You never know what might come next, but you hope for the best," he said.

These days, Jurek can be found in his barbershop, talking with his customers, who are mainly made up of regulars and referrals.

Bruce Willeck stopped in for a haircut, which is first-come first-serve, on Monday. It was his first time back in Jurek's chair in several years.

"I decided to come in for a 'real' haircut," he said. "My dad came in here for years."

David Clark came in next and immediately chided Jurek about the shop being closed on Friday afternoon.

"I had to attend a function with my hair looking like this," Clark joked. "But that's OK, I just blamed it on my barber."

Jurek had closed the shop to help with the U-12 Girls State Hockey Tournament that day.

Clark couldn't remember how many years he'd been coming to Jim's for his haircuts. He said Jurek was highly recommended to him.

"I had a barber before where everyone came out with the same haircut," he said. "I wanted a different haircut at least some of the time."

When asked about the origin of his nickname, "Congo," Jurek could offer no clues.

"As long as I can remember I've been called that," he grinned. "It just came along ... and most people still know me by that name."

Haircuts at the barbershop cost $12 each. The majority of his customers are men, although Jurek said he has cut the hair of a few women who wanted it short.

Jurek manages to stay mostly busy, but with an all walk-in business, things can be hairy at times with people waiting.

"Sometimes I sit and stare out the window," he said. "Other times I have customers five people deep."

A barbershop in Esko recently closed and Jurek said he has picked up a lot of those customers.

He's seen a number of barbershops in Carlton County close in recent years.

"I have old timers come in here and tell me how many barber shops there used to be," he said. "I believe there are only four barbers left in all of Carlton County now."

Jurek said he has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"It's a good job, but there's no retirement," he said. "I'll probably die right here in this chair," he joked.

Hours at Jim's (Congo's) Barber Shop in Cloquet are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (218) 879-3379.

Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann can be contacted at: lbaumann@pinejournal.com .

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