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Within a Whisker

He’s a riverboat captain, Santa Claus and Coast Guard Reserve engineer — now "The General" tries assembling an army of beards.

Dennis Dickerson grew his shock of white facial hair 10 years ago because … well, he claims it was due to laziness. But apathy became intentional recognition when his groomed vollbart Garibaldi won 11th place at the World Beard and Mustache Championship in 2005.

Representing Team Beard USA, the Alexandria resident is now searching for the best beards in the metro area — an all-points-bulletin to celebrate the aesthetic of facial hair.

EVEN ON A BUSY "Discount Wing Night" at Hard Times Café in Old Town Alexandria, it isn’t hard to pick Dickerson out of a crowd. Sure, sitting next to a posterboard display of beard styles and Team Beard USA sign-up information sets him apart, but it’s really the Robert E. Lee costume that makes him pop. Dressed in a broad gray jacket, matching pants and a Calvary hat adorned with two gold tassels, his white beard springs from his face, the full mustache flipped-up at the ends like a Texas longhorn. His nickname is "The General."

Inspired by portraits of Lee in the 1860s, Dickerson can strike the pose on command — with the slightest adjustment, his dark brown eyes turn cold. Tonight, however, he only poses when asked. A cold stare can give the wrong impression when recruiting new members for Team Beard USA. Remembering his first World Beard Championship in Berlin, he doesn’t want his efforts lost in translation.

"I worked really hard to get that stern look," he said. "The first contest they said I ruined my chances because I didn’t smile. They just didn’t understand. Some think I’m General Grant, others think I’m Colonel Sanders."

He still placed 11th in the Garibaldi category — one that requires a full, wide growth with a prominent mustache. A year later at the European Championship he placed fifth in the slightly shorter growth category, the Verdi.

"Others want a trophy and to be in the top three," he said. "Placing 11th and fifth were highlights of my life."

DICKERSON SAYS the bulk of preparing for a facial hair competition requires patience and time; he just lets his beard grow. Like an artist shaping garden hedges, each contestant lets his beard grow until a few weeks before the contest, then a style is picked. There are five categories for full beards in the championships, each ranging in fullness and length.

"Then you have to pick a costume look," said the 64-year-old retired captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. "You don’t have to wear a costume but experience has shown that those in bright colors and costumes do better."

Some contestants look like gold-panning 49ers, others seem to have walked right out of a Charles Dickens novel or are clones of Otto Van Bismarck, complete with Prussian spiked helmets. Dickerson believes that the costumes give context to facial hairstyles.

"If you’re proud of your look, it’s an opportunity to show up and present yourself," he continued. "There’s always a positive response to facial hair."

With roughly 200 members in Team Beard USA, Dickerson is a man alone in this region, and now he’s looking to expand membership by starting a Northern Virginia chapter of the organization. His monthly appearance at Hard Times Café is kind of an outreach program. Since he began, he’s had a few people put their contact information on the sign-up sheet, but most are just intrigued by the bearded man in the back corner of the dining room. Fred Parker, the clean-shaven co-founder of Hard Times, likes the idea and offered his restaurant as a place for Dickerson to meet potential members.

"What we need to do is generate a little interest," said Parker. "People just don’t know about this. Driving down the street you see some people with a little growth — if only they knew."

Currently in discussion with the National Kidney Foundation for a sponsored local facial hair competition during the Chili Cook-off on May 12, Dickerson believes a local contest is just the momentum he needs to bring beards out of the woodwork.

Bearded men like Bill Ross, a friend of Dickerson’s who came out for a drink at Hard Times Café. He’s intrigued, but he’s not sure about the commitment.

"I might get involved," he said. "I doubt I’ll do any of the heavy travelling that he does."

But Dickerson is optimistic that people like Ross just need a little encouragement.

"I need an event to recruit to," he said. "If I had one I could get more people. I’m sure that there are a number of beards and mustaches in the metro area that could compete in the World Championship."

For a man who participates in beard competitions, it’s fitting that Dickerson’s wife, Carol, is a master-gardener with Fairfax County — both cultivators within their respective passion.

The next biennial World Beard and Mustache Championship is this September in Brighton, England — a competition for him and English gardens for her.

"She thinks I’m crazy," said Dickerson. "She’s willing to tolerate it because of the trips. That’s the bribe."

THERE’S A REASON why Dickerson went the lion’s share of his life clean-shaven. Growing up on a Nebraska farm in the 1940s and '50s, Dickerson remembers the first time he ever shaved. Like many male teenagers, he began as a freshman in high school, "although it was probably before I really needed to," he admits.

It would be roughly 40 years before he committed to real growth, predominantly because of his long career in the Coast Guard.

"The Coast Guard is multitasked and multitrained — a beard presents a problem for some facemask breathing devices," he said.

Graduating in 1966 from the University of Nebraska’s Engineering School, Dickerson’s first assignment with the Coast Guard was to redesign the machinery used for breaking icebergs. Originally built during World War II, the aged ice-breakers had begun to wear down and in the mid-1960s a team was assembled for the redesign. For three years he served as an engineer on the team, which he remembers as a "magnificent engineering opportunity for a young engineer."

Dickerson continued his work as an engineer in the Coast Guard Reserve, stationed at the Pentagon while working on electrical designs for military facilities until he retired in 1998.

He may be retired, but Dickerson is far from idle. A riverboat captain with the Potomac Riverboat Company, Dickerson spends much of his time piloting large vessels like the "Admiral Tilp," "Cherry Blossom," and "Matthew Hayes" from the Alexandria waterfront to destinations like Mt. Vernon and Georgetown. A former substitute teacher, Dickerson taught at many Fairfax County schools, such as Hayfield, Mark Twain and Lee.

But perhaps his most public appearance is the part he plays as Santa Claus each year at the Springfield Mall.

"I’m one of the few that has an income from my beard," he joked.

Last year Dickerson worked the evening shift, four hours a day, seven days a week until Christmas Eve. He loves it — and was recruited a few years ago to play the character.

"When that little one’s eyes light up and they are seeing the real Santa, it’s rewarding," he said. "There are some that try to play tricks with you and that’s fun too."

As for the beard, Dickerson says he doesn’t mind the skeptics who tug at this hair.

"Occasionally there is one who is a non-believer," he said. "Occasionally I’ll have a baby get into my sideburns and they just make a fist and it’s hard to get out of it."

MOST HOLIDAY SEASONS end with a ritual trimming of the beard, but the competition this year means he’s working with almost two years of growth.

"The Europeans dominate because they’ve been at it longer," he said. "What I’m trying to do is get a dozen guys together. I want to generate more than me, locally. We just want to promote the fact that facial hair looks good and people wearing them look attractive."

With the possibility of holding a spring event locally, Dickerson remains optimistic.

"There’s something about the average male — if you put a contest together he will compete," he said.