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Mack Brooks, a 'pillar' of downtown Crestview, has died

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

CRESTVIEW — Mack Brooks, once described by the Florida Division of Historical Resources as “a Crestview institution,” “a man of many talents” and “a self-appointed historian of Okaloosa County,” died on Tuesday at age 90.

Besides being a dedicated artist, fiddle player and Crestview promoter, Brooks ran his Mack Brooks’ Barbershop on Main Street downtown for more than six decades.

“He was one of the staples of Crestview, a pillar of the downtown area,” Paul Mixon, the recently-elected District 1 Okaloosa County Commissioner, said Thursday.

District 1 includes most of Crestview. Mixon, who is a lifelong county resident and the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Crestview, recalled Brooks’ own paintings that he displayed in his barbershop, and his passion for freedom of expression.

More:From his historic shop, Crestview barber Mack Brooks spreads wisdom, preserves history

The walls in Mack Brooks' Barbershop on Main Street in Crestview were covered with old photographs and paintings by Brooks of historic Okaloosa County.

“He was opinionated but had a wealth of knowledge,” Mixon said. “I know Mr. Brooks will be missed by many.”

Former District 1 Commissioner Graham Fountain said when he was a boy, he used to go on qual hunts and brim fishing trips with his grandfather, Brooks and their friends.

"I will always remember him as a dear family friend, a longtime downtown barber, city ambassador and North Okaloosa County historian," Fountain said. "The last time we met, he said, 'I'm old, worn out and ready to go. It's time the Lord comes to get me,' to which I replied, 'I hope he's ready for you.'"

Brooks was born on April 13, 1930 in Baker. As a young man at his family’s farm in Baker, he raced horses and drove loads of produce to the market. The family also owned a store, blacksmith shop and grist mill on the site that is now the Baker Block Museum.

Brooks bought the barbershop in downtown Crestview in 1959 after completing barber school in Tallahassee. It was previously Keel’s Barbershop, which opened in 1917.

Mack's Barber Shop was on Main Street in Crestview

“I’ve cut a lot of people’s hair. Some of the (area’s) pioneers,” Mack told the Northwest Florida Daily News for a story in January 2019. “And some of the pioneers played with me for years. I’ve played the fiddle most of my days.”

Some of the prominent people who received a haircut from Brooks included then-Congressman Bob Sikes and country music legend Johnny Cash.

Brooks also shared with the Daily News in 2019 some advice for future generations.

“Whenever your buddies die off and new people come in, they don’t care about history,” he said. “It hasn’t been learned, and that’s what’s going to cost you a lot of trouble. ... It’s not just about education; you’ve got to have common sense.”

Mack Brooks plays the fiddle in his barbershop in 2012.

Brooks was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage Award from the state Division of Historical Resources in 2012.

“Musical friends gather at the barbershop on Saturdays to play old-time country music and discuss local history and culture,” according to the division’s online tribute to Brooks that year. “Mack first learned how to play the fiddle when he was a teenager; his biggest musical influences are Roy Acuff and his own grandfather. While music is a mainstay at the barbershop, Mack’s stories serve as the shop’s real focal point.

“His barbershop is an unofficial museum of Okaloosa County history, decorated with numerous black-and-white photographs of local figures and his own paintings. Mack often paints in the barbershop when he isn’t cutting hair. The colorful works depict historical buildings and scenes from Okaloosa County that have not existed for years, such as Crestview’s first hospital, high school, and hotel.”

Mack Brooks sits in his barbershop in Crestview in 2019 while telling a story from his past.

State officials also said in the tribute that Brooks created his works of art from memory, “recalling past places that have been torn down or permanently altered, in order to preserve them for future generations. Mack continues to perpetuate community traditions in Okaloosa County through his painting, his music, and his stories. All of these elements make Mack a living testament to the county’s traditional cultural heritage.”

Ann Spann, director of the Baker Block Museum, recalled Thursday that she and other members of the Crestview Historic Preservation Board accompanied Brooks to the ceremony in Tallahassee to receive his Florida Folk Heritage Award.

“That was a pretty big award for him,” Spann said.

Legendary Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden “got a similar award the same night,” Spann said. “It was pretty fun seeing them interact.”

She said she knew Brooks all her life and grew up with his children.

The Brooks’ family’s store, called the Blue Bird Market, was managed by Brooks’ grandfather and uncle and used to be on the east end of what is now the Baker Block Museum, she said.

“I spent many hours in his barbershop,” Spann said. “There were many local bands there on Saturday afternoons. They did a lot of fish fries and musical events there. I also got to know him very well during my years on the local newspaper.”

Brooks’ folk art painting-filled barbershop represented “a history lesson itself,” she said.

“He was quite a large figure on Main Street for the last 60-something years,” Spann said. “He will certainly be missed.”

Brooks’ death is “a tremendous loss to the community,” said Jerry Milligan, a lifelong Crestview resident who served as the city’s mayor from November 1980 to November 1987.

“During the years I was in office he spent an awful lot of time promoting things within the city and downtown,” Milligan said. “He was a part of Crestview, downtown and a part of Baker. He was a man who lived the history of this area.”

Milligan said that as one of the original members of the Crestview Historic Preservation Board, Brooks was instrumental in saving the historic building on Woodruff Avenue that opened as Florida A&M University’s Durell Peaden Jr. Rural Pharmacy Education Campus in 2012.

“He was always interested in promoting and making something bigger and better,” Milligan said of Brooks.

District 3 County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, whose area of representation includes Crestview’s Main Street, recalled setting up his office near Brooks’ Barbershop years ago.

“I kind of came into downtown as a young lawyer,” Boyles said. “I set up about three or four doors down from Mack. That’s been a few years, and even then he was an old man. He’s been a staple of Crestview. I always enjoyed a chat with Mack.”

Boyles said he usually used to see Brooks when Brooks was either on his way to or from the Tropical Palm Restaurant on Main Street.

“He had a wealth of local history and knowledge,” Boyles said. “I tended to avoid one of those morning conversations with Mack if I had a morning meeting or other obligation, but they always tended to be entertaining and educational.”

According to his obituary, Brooks was predeceased by his parents, Robert Lee and Boncile Brooks (Harrison); and his brothers, Hugh and Wayne Brooks. He is survived by his wife Inez Brooks (Locke) of Crestview; his children, Johnny Mack Brooks of Crestview and Jequita Brooks-Barnsdale (Reggie) of Crestview; and his nieces and nephews, Robert (Patricia Brooks) of Crestview, FL and Rhett (Shirley).

Visitation was set for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Whitehurst Powell Funeral Home, 436 W. James Lee Blvd., Crestview.

A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Pyron Chapel Cemetery, 6498 William Gary Johnson Road, Baker.

The family requests that face masks and appropriate Covid-19 precautions be observed.