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© Peter Schwepker

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Guardian Angel
Angel Delgadillo cut hair for a living. For a legacy, he saved an American icon. That's why he's known as the Mayor of Route 66.

By Roger Naylor

Seligman The first thing you notice about Angel Delgadillo is the perpetual smile, bright as neon and wide enough to stretch from one end of Route 66 to the other. Then you spot the eye-twinkle and the warmth that infuses every handshake or pat on the shoulder. Next to Angel, Santa Claus would seem surly.

Angel moves through his Route 66 gift shop in Seligman like a gentle whirlwind, signing autographs and throwing a lanky arm around folks who traveled thousands of miles just to have a photo taken with him. Not many retired small-town barbers command such admiration, but then again, not many are credited with preserving a sweeping slice of American heritage. Angel's story is about the man who saved Route 66.

Back when Angel cut hair for a living, business was good in Seligman. The main drag was Route 66, and up to 9,000 cars a day rumbled through town. That changed abruptly on September 22, 1978, when the adjacent section of Interstate 40 opened and a deathly quiet fell.

"One day there was so much traffic in Seligman, it might take 15 minutes to cross the street," Angel says. "The next day, you could lie down in the middle of the road and not worry about getting run over."

Seligman struggled during those lean years. Plenty of other communities simply vanished, but Angel was determined to keep that from happening to his town. In 1987, Angel, along with other local business owners, formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. They lobbied the state to designate Route 66 a historic highway. By the next year, the state had agreed and began posting appropriate signage.

Soon organizations sprang up in other states and a wave of Route 66 nostalgia was under way. For his tireless efforts to preserve and promote the highway, Angel Delgadillo is known as the Mayor of Route 66. He has been written up in hundreds of articles and books, and was honored as an Arizona Culturekeeper in 2003.

"We were forgotten after the interstate opened ... that was a sad time," Angel says. "Now people travel from all over the world just to visit us. Every day is a good day."

"It seems like he's getting younger," says his daughter Mirna. "More and more people come through town looking to discover a way of life they thought was gone, and he feeds on that. Their passion gives him new energy." Turns out, Angel's story is not just about the man who saved a road. It's also the story of a road that saved the man.

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