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Sometimes, when Kate Buckler is asked what her life is like, she tells this story:
“We were at a video store and these two boys were in there, playing a game and running around the store like crazy. When they rounded the corner and saw John (Kate’s husband), they came halting to a stop on the backs of their heels like a cartoon.
"They stood there staring at him and then one said, ‘Whoa,’ and the other said, ‘I know!’ They didn’t say anything to John. Then they started running again.”
Kate Buckler sees reactions like this to her husband all the time. Reactions, less to her husband, per se, and more to what’s on his face. John Buckler is a founding member of the Lansing area’s Great American Fierce Beard Organization (GAFBO).
That’s Great American Fierce Beard Organization. What part of that could possibly be unclear?
GAFBO meets to have good, silly fun, raise money for charities, participate in beard competitions (something you never knew you needed to experience) and promote overall beard culture.
What, pray tell, is beard culture, you say. Beard culture can be defined, more or less, as overall camaraderie among beard growers, those often-overlooked victims of discrimination.
The club started eight years ago. It developed, as such clubs often seem to do, from talk at a party.
“Originally, there were five of us, most being recent Michigan State University grads,” John Buckler said. “One guy had decided to go as Fidel Castro for Halloween and grew a large beard, and we all got into a discussion about who could grow the ‘fiercest beard.’
"So we grew our beards and then we walked around the streets of East Lansing approaching random people and asking them to vote on our beards. Then we met up at a bar and tallied the votes. After we decided, we shaved them into interesting designs.”
And so the tradition began. The club continued to meet, grow and shave for several years, participating in some competitions, acquiring various sponsorships (including one from a beard shampoo company — who knew?) and receiving support from businesses like barber shops, clothing stores and bars.
Three years later, a member was diagnosed with testicular cancer. GAFBO decided to host a fund-raiser for him, earning pledges for every day, week or month that members refused to shave.
This led GAFBO to become a philanthropic organization. They raise money for various fund-raisers each year, this year’s being Scholarship for America.
The club’s main goal is to expand its happenings in the Lansing area. The members would like to connect with other groups, hold more charity events and someday bring a competition to the area.
As the group has evolved, some of the more fiercely-bearded members have become something of local celebrities, cofounder Dave Beaudoin said.
“John has gained cult status,” Beaudoin said. “People approach him all the time. When he was in Oregon for a competition, someone stopped him at a party store to say she recognized him from her friend’s Facebook profile picture. Her friend had seen him at the competition, took a picture and used it for her profile.”
It’s not all fun and games for the GAFBO, however. There are hardships that come with fierce beard fame.
“The large beards add to your daily routine,” John Buckler said. “Obviously, you have to brush it and whatnot, or it will look ratty and gross.
"But it poses problems mostly when eating or drinking. I will not eat a meal at a restaurant unless I can use a knife and fork, and I have had to change how I drink out of a glass, tipping my head farther and farther back so the mustache doesn’t get into the drink.”
There is still more danger for the ambitious beard grower during “Crazy-Off ” competitions, in which club members compete for the craziest of beard designs.
Beaudoin is a two-time victim of grower injury in his quest for Crazy-Off glory. Once, he burned himself with a hot glue gun while attaching nuts to his beard, and a second time he received chemical burns from bleaching it. (His plan was to dye it blue and fill it with Shrinky Dink crabs for an Under the Sea theme. And he didn’t even win.)
Before you ask, yes, the beardless are more than welcome in the GAFBO (both men and women). In fact, the women have practically developed a group of their own.
“I call myself a ‘beard widow,’” Kate Buckler said. “When John and I went to his first competition, I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure women would be there. When we arrived, John was like a 5-year-old at a birthday party, running around, looking at all the beards and asking people’s stories. He’d disappear for hours.
"I noticed a woman sitting off in a corner alone and I said to her, ‘Is your husband a part of this too?’ in this self-pitying way. And, in a tone suggesting her situation was far worse than mine, she said, ‘No, he’s running it.”
Wives and girlfriends don’t mind the beards, John Buckler says.
“None have really expressed disgust so far,” he said. “It seems to be our parents that don’t like it as much. However, they still cut out articles about facial hair in the paper and mail them to us.”
Kate Buckler says her husband’s beard competitions have led to many great trips. She is pushing him to do well in his competitions so they can go the world championships in Norway in 2011.
She insists the beardless of the GAFBO have as much fun as the bearded.
This certainly proved true at a recent meeting at the Michigan Brewing Co. in Lansing.
About 15 people turned out, as well as some children. The meeting was mostly social: catching up, discussing obscure beers, swapping old MSU stories, sharing pictures from recent beard competitions, and so on.
Club member Aldon Olson was crowned July’s Member of the Month for commiting to a two-hour drive to each meeting.
Another attendee surprised everyone when he drove up from Fort Worth, Texas, planning to head to a different beard club meeting in Ohio the next day.
“When I heard they were meeting, I just had to come,” said Thomas M. Blurton, of the Fort Worth Gem City Gentlemen of the Gilded Beard. “It’s been so much fun. It was absolutely worth it.”
The club also gathered food for the MSU Food Bank at the meeting and revealed its new fund-raising campaign called “Mustaches for Education,” in which members sell $1 false mustaches to support Scholarship for America.
But mostly there was beer and beard talk.
Or, as Kate Buckler says, “It’s just all about fun — and beards.”