OCHS teacher Norm Schmidt

Orange County High School teacher Norm Schmidt has entered his distinctive beard in benefit competitions. 

Once you’ve met Norman Schmidt, you won’t ever need a second introduction. The genial English teacher at Orange County High School (OCHS) with the long, distinctive beard makes a memorable impression.

Schmidt, 50, has been teaching at OCHS since 2006. His specialty is 10th-grade English, which he calls “a little mix of everything.” When he’s not discussing metaphors and similes, he’s happy to talk about the homegrown conversation piece that positions him somewhere between Walt Whitman and ZZ Top.

For the past few years, he has even made the rounds of beard competitions (yes, there is such a thing). Although he has yet to place in the winners’ circle, he says the point is not to win but have fun, socialize with other beard enthusiasts and raise money for charity.

The Pittsburgh native said that when he was growing up, lots of men, young and old, grew beards in the fall around the time deer-hunting season began. It was a way to stay warm throughout the long, frigid Pennsylvania winters, especially for those going on hunting expeditions. But when the flowers bloomed, out came the razors and the beards went away.

Schmidt began his beard routine when he was 16 years old, and he, too, got a full shave every spring. But a few years ago, when he’d let it grow a little longer than usual, someone asked him how long his beard could get. He had no idea. After discussing it with his wife, Heather, he decided to forgo the spring shave and see what would develop.

What has developed is a beautiful brown, red and gray beard that qualifies him for the “full natural” category in beard competitions.

A beard of this kind doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires vigilant maintenance.

“I have to wash it every day and then put conditioner in it every day—and then beard oil,” Schmidt said during an interview in his classroom one day after school had let out.

He makes the beard oil himself, from various “essential oils” that are believed to promote the growth of healthy hair.

“I put the beard oil in each morning and then comb it all out,” Schmidt continued, noting he is due for a trim because he’s noticed some split ends.

“It’s going to happen soon. I gotta cut it down a little!” he said with a grin. “I’m going to probably take a good couple inches off just to set a nice, healthy growth. Eventually I’m going to shave it all off again and start it over—just to mix it up.”

Now that the beard has grown long, Schmidt has to take some unusual precautions. When he and his wife were doing some renovation work that involved power saws, she saw a calamity in the making.

“My wife’s like, ‘You’ve got to watch your beard,’” he recalled.

He realized the beard could get tangled in the project and create a problem far worse than split ends.

“And so, any time I was using power tools, I made sure I tucked the beard in, as silly as that sounds.”

Schmidt’s first beard competition took place several years ago in Richmond. It benefited Fisher House, which provides a place to stay for families of veterans receiving medical care. He and his wife had such a good time they decided to keep an eye out for future competitions.

As much as Schmidt enjoys the lighthearted socializing that accompanies the competitions, he said the altruistic dimension of beard contests matters a lot to him. He said the events typically require an entry fee from each contestant, and spectators pay an admission fee, with proceeds going to a charitable organization. He participated in one such event where a silent auction raised additional money for charity. The 2019 National Beard and Moustache Championship, coming up in November in Chicago, will benefit veterans, rescue animals and homeless people in the Chicago area.

“You know your beard’s getting long when …”

Schmidt’s current beard, officially measured from his bottom lip, places him in the “one foot or shorter” length category. In addition to length, categories include moustaches, styled beards and even fake beards.

He recalled one man whose styled beard featured beer cans inserted inside strategically placed holes in a long, full beard. He said women enter the fake beard category and at one event, a woman’s fake beard was so convincing he asked whether it was really artificial, and the bearded lady assured him it was.

Suffice it to say that these competitions attract some unusual characters. Schmidt recalled a European gent who arrived at a competition with a beard stretching below his waist.

In a revelation bordering on “too much information,” the man remarked, “You know your beard’s getting long when you have to put it over your shoulder to go into the men’s room.”

Schmidt is not in danger of falling into that particular category. He is seriously thinking about going to a Fredericksburg barbershop that specializes in beards and getting that overdue trim. But he does enjoy the friendly attention a foot-long beard draws.

A fellow beard competitor praised Schmidt’s beard for its multicolored “racing stripes,” and a student recently expressed amazement when she looked at his staff photo ID (which all school staff are required to wear) and glimpsed an image of a clean-shaven Schmidt.

She told her teacher she couldn’t imagine him teaching his class without his beard: “It just becomes part of you and the way you teach poetry.”

It’s not just his students who comment. When Schmidt is walking down the sidewalk, he occasionally passes another man with unusual facial hair. He said there is often a moment of friendly interaction: a nod, a smile and maybe a comment along the lines of “nice beard.”

But to keep him humble, there’s his young niece, who informed him he had ice cream in his striped beard.

“That’s not ice cream,” Schmidt told her. “It’s just gray!”

Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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