It still smells like a beauty shop in the big, almost-empty space where LaRose Beasley used to share all of her secrets.
The bottles of shampoo and dye and nail polish are mostly packed away and gone, but there are still a few salon chairs scattered around and well-worn copies of magazines — Redbook, Woman's Day, Sophisticate's Black Hair Styles and Care Guide — piled on tables. There's a room with school desks lined up in neat rows and a phone hanging on the wall under a handwritten sign: “3 minute limit on telephone.”
After nearly two decades here, it's taking a while for Beasley to turn this place into something that isn't LaRose's Beauty Academy.
It's taking even longer for her to turn herself into someone who isn't Ms. Beasley, the elegant lady with the perfectly coiffed hair and the calm voice who has spent most of her life teaching students to cut and color and weave and braid. To listen and nod when a customer wanted to vent her frustration over her kids and her husband and her job. To imagine a life where they could be more than a single mother without a plan or money for diapers and groceries.
“It's just in my blood,” she said. “I don't get tired of it.”
As a girl in north Omaha, Beasley was already interested in the things that would eventually become her career. She always wanted to look good, wanted her hair just so. The other kids noticed. “Here she is,” they'd tease, “Miss Prissy.”
Her aunt, who worked in a salon in California and often visited Omaha, noticed, too. On one trip, she brought along a biography of Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of former slaves who started a hair products company and became a hugely successful businesswoman.
Beasley read the book and was inspired. I could do this, she thought.
After a marriage and divorce and a stint as a model in Omaha and Chicago, Beasley was ready.
Sometime in the 1960s — she's not sure exactly what year, and if you ask her age then (or now) she'll just smile and shake her head — Beasley enrolled at the Althouse Beauty School, at 24th and Pratt Streets. She was excited about everything: the books, the theory, the hands-on work.
“The day I walked in I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said.
After an 18-month course, Beasley continued on for instructor training. Before long, she was splitting her time between doing hair for a growing list of clients and teaching a growing list of students. She taught at Althouse, and then directed the cosmetology program at the Women's Job Corps, which was in the Paxton building downtown. When that effort shut down in the early 1970s, she returned to Althouse.
She worked with class after class of students. Some had big dreams and a good work ethic. Some were trying to slide by until they found something else to do.
None of that mattered to Beasley, said former student Vicki Kellogg, who attended Althouse in the early 1980s. If a student needed extra help, Beasley would stay late. If a student didn't have money for supplies, she'd offer up cash out of her own pocket.
“She was about helping people, making that person a better person,” Kellogg said. “She wanted that person to be somebody. She would take somebody that didn't have much or did nothing and make sure you knew what you were doing.”
Other former students said Beasley's generosity went even further. She frequently held food drives for local food banks, volunteered —along with her students — at a school in the neighborhood, and often pitched in to help if she heard a student was struggling with money.
When Shelly Rogers found out she was pregnant with her second daughter, she called Beasley in tears. Already struggling to care for her first child, Rogers was terrified that a second baby meant she'd never be able to get a steady job, get off of welfare.
“I went to her and cried on her shoulder,” Rogers recalled. “And she said: ‘You are learning a skill you can take with you. Only you can determine where you want to be.' That's just something that always stuck behind, that I've always held in my mind.”
After she graduated, Rogers spent more than 15 years working in salons.
Althouse closed in 1990 and Beasley opened her own school, LaRose's Beauty Academy, inside the Omaha Small Business Network complex at 24th and Lake Streets.
She brought along some of her students, and plenty of others found her. She didn't have to do any recruiting; by then, if you were in the beauty business in Omaha, you'd heard of LaRose Beasley.
At first, most of the students were from north Omaha. But within a few years, students were coming from all over the city.
One major selling point was Beasley's insistence that all of her students should know how to do the hair of any client who walked in the door: man, woman, black, white, curly hair, straight hair. She's proud that the stylists who learned from her have gone on to work in salons across Omaha and all over the country, often surprising their employers with their range of skills.
Cherie Dubray, who first signed up for classes from Beasley eight years ago and went on to get her instructor's license, said LaRose has helped to start countless businesses in north Omaha. That includes the salon where she now works, Cookie's Takin' Pride Beauty Salon, which is across the street from LaRose. The salon's owner is also a LaRose graduate.
About a year and a half ago, Beasley decided to shut down the classroom operation. She was getting close to retirement and thought maybe she'd turn the place into a regular salon, rent out the styling chairs.
That worked for a while, but Beasley had trouble keeping enough stylists to make the place work. This spring, she decided it was time to pack up the place for good.
She's sold or given away most of her tools and hair products and equipment. She still spends some days at LaRose, sorting out the things that are left and chatting with old friends who keep dropping in.
And she's still getting calls from would-be beauty students, wanting to know how to sign up for class. When she tells them that LaRose is history, many ask: What am I supposed to do?
As she flat-ironed the hair of regular customer Veronica Galloway — who said LaRose gave her daughter her first hair cut 40 years ago — Dubray worried about the closure of the school.
“It's a big loss for the community, not to have a black-owned beauty school,” she said.
Beasley is looking forward to visiting children and grandchildren now scattered across the country. It was time for the school to end, she said, but she doesn't particularly like the idea.
“Retirement is a word I never wanted in my vocabulary,” she said.
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