Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about Oklahomans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read the stories of other Oklahomans here. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Help us tell their story.
Since Joe “Nick” Ramirez, Jr., 84, was a young boy, he had dreamed of owning his own barber shop, a lifelong dream he was able to achieve when he opened his own barbershop in El Reno in the 1980s.
“He was my first hero,” said Anita Greenwalt, Joe’s daughter.
Born in 1935, Ramirez was the eighth of nine children. His mother died of tuberculosis. Though the state tried to seperate the family, they were eventually able to remain together, with the oldest siblings raising the younger children.
He began working as a shoeshine boy shortly after his mother’s death, Greenwalt said, and was eventually able to start cutting hair at a local barbershop, followed by a stint in the U.S. Army. Joe attended barber school and was eventually able to rent space at a barber shop in Union City to cut hair.
In 1961, he married Emily Bushyhead. And after a brief stint as a railroad worker he became a barber in Okarche.
Joe eventually went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in the late 70s. He served in the U.S. Army and was a member of Sacred Heart Church, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion for 41 years.
In 1983, he opened his own barber shop in El Reno — Nick’s Barber Shop, which still bears his name and is now owned by his daughter.
In the late 1980s, Greenwalt lost her job after giving birth to her second child. The experience left her frustrated, and she swore never to work for a company again. So, following in the footsteps of her father, she went to barber school.
When her certificate came in the mail, she opened it and showed it to her father.
“He said ‘right there, mija. Right there.’ He said ‘You have something now that nobody can ever take away from you – you have a way of making a livelihood for yourself and your family and it can be a good livelihood,” she said. “And it has been.”
Greenwalt started work at her father’s El Reno barber shop in 1989, and in 2003, she purchased the business from him. Joe continued working there until 2010, when he retired following a stroke, she said.
Joe was a recovering alcoholic, but was 47 years sober when he died last year, Greenwalt said.
He was known as a rescuer of stray dogs, and though he liked to refer to himself as “a big time antique dealer,” Greenwalt said, he was a “junker” who enjoyed finding treasures in the items that other people were getting rid of.
“He would go by and see a pile of stuff on the curb, and go through it and pick up what he thought he could make money off it,” Greenwalt said.
In September, Joe tested positive for COVID-19. He was briefly hospitalized, but allowed to go home after his symptoms appeared to subside. Within days, he was back in the hospital and Emily, his wife of nearly 60 years, also tested positive for the virus.
The two were placed in separate hospitals, and soon afterwards Emily died.
Joe died six days later on Sept. 20, 2020.
Joe and his wife were buried side by side following a joint memorial service.
“I feel fortunate to have had the relationship I did,” Greenwalt said. “He was my hero.”