After finding her first example a decorative piece made from human hair, of Leila Cohoon fell in love with works of art – the wreaths, the jewelry, the elaborate arrangements. She now has an entire museum devoted to her collection.
When Leila Cohoon first heard the word “cosmetology,” she didn’t even know how to spell it.
Growing up on a farm in the small north-central Missouri town of Marceline, Leila didn’t think about things like what she would do or be when she grew up.
“Never, in my life, did I think about any of that,” Leila says. “We just played and had fun – just a normal childhood of learning to do chores and growing up on a farm.”
But at age 17, fresh out of high school, a young woman walked into the business where Leila was working at a job her father had gotten for her. In that single moment, more than 60 years ago, Leila’s life course changed, and she discovered her purpose while here on Earth.
The name “Leila” – at least in Missouri – would become synonymous with “hair.”
‘HIT IT HEAD ON’
Leila was the middle child, with an older sister and twin younger sisters, growing up on a farm near Marceline. Best known as the childhood home of Walt Disney, the town boasts about 2,200 residents today.
“My childhood – we had fun. I can’t say enough for it,” Leila says. “With three sisters, what we couldn’t think of...” She pauses and laughs.
Leila had strict parents, she says, but she appreciated it. Her father taught her to think, rather than flat-out saying “No” or “Go ask your mother.”
“He never answered my questions,” Leila remembers. “He gave me plenty to think about, and then I had to go back and tell him what I had decided. That’s probably one of the best things that happened to me as I grew up.”
Those critical-thinking skills certainly came in handy when Leila was faced with an important decision following her high school graduation. At 17, she was working at the local dime store.
As she went about her duties of dusting shelves, putting away merchandise and waiting on customers, a young woman came in, wearing a clean, white uniform. Her nails were polished, and her hair was styled nicely – these were things, Leila explains, that she simply didn’t care about while growing up.
“I decided whatever job she had, that’s what I wanted,” Leila says. “And that’s how I ended up in cosmetology. It’s funny how things happen in your life that can cause you to do something and head in a certain direction.”
But first, Leila had to tell her father that she wanted to quit the job he had found for her, that she wanted to pursue her own dream.
“Like I said, I couldn’t even spell it,” Leila says. “He asked me what it was, and I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Page 2 of 4 - Leila found out the young woman was an apprentice at her aunt’s beauty salon on the corner across from the drug store. Still unaware of what she was getting herself into, Leila asked if room was available for her, too, at the salon.
Within a week, Leila was an apprentice. She instantly loved the job, especially getting to meeting people and learning something new.
“I was the curious kid. I was the middle kid,” Leila says. “I was the one that asked all the questions. There were never enough answers for me.”
Three months later, Leila was left to working in the salon by herself. Then, she had to fix the hair of a regular client who had died.
“I didn’t have the slightest idea of what I was doing or anything,” she says, “but, I had nerve. I did it. That’s the difference – I tackle anything, and I’m still that way today. Nothing bothers me. Hit it head on, and work it out.”
From then on, Leila says, life was fast and furious.
‘A GOOD LIFE’
In 1951, Leila met her husband, Don Cohoon. They had just three dates before marrying, since Don was in the U.S. Air Force.
Sixty years later, they are still married – but first, the story of how Don also came into the cosmetology industry.
The family spent time in Albuquerque, N.M., where Don was stationed, and the couple’s son and daughter were born there. Following Don’s discharge in 1955, the Cohoons moved back to Missouri, settling down in Independence. Leila opened her first salon near the old Blue Ridge Mall.
Don helped with odd jobs at Leila’s salon like taking out the trash – he was around the business so much that the couple decided Don, too, should earn his cosmetology license.
It was a big change, Don says, but he’s glad today that he made the career move.
“It’s been a good life for us,” Don says.
By 1960, Leila had opened the Independence College of Cosmetology. After outgrowing several sites, the cosmetology school settled in at 815 W. 23rd St.
Leila’s and Don’s two children, now in their late 50s, also are involved in cosmetology and the family business: Bruce Cohoon is president of Professional Beauty Products, and Linda Clifford is now the director of the Independence College of Cosmetology.
“I’ve always described her as she eats, drinks, sleeps, breathes, lives hair – even her license plate is ‘hair,’” Linda says. “She’s always described work as she’s never actually worked a day in her life, ‘cause it’s been so much fun.”
Commitment, Linda says, is an important word for her mother, as she’s remained in the same industry for decades, as well as being married for 60-plus years.
Page 3 of 4 - “Nah, I don’t try – I do my own thing,” Linda says, of whether she ever finds it difficult to keep up with her mother. “I gave up on that a long time ago. She’s always got more irons in the fire than I ever wanted. She makes up her mind on stuff, and it happens.”
It’s only natural that both Bruce and Linda chose career paths related to hair – they were the kids who grew up with framed hair wreaths – some centuries-old – under their beds, rather than the bogeyman or dust bunnies.
A year after returning to Missouri, in 1956, a shopping trip for Easter shoes on the Country Club Plaza led to Leila’s discovery of her “first piece,” the hair arrangement that kicked off a decades-long hobby and collection.
“That poor guy – he must have had 20 pairs of shoes out there. My mind was not on shoes,” Leila says of the shoe salesman.
She ran out of the store, not buying a pair of shoes. She purchased the small frame with the hair arrangement for $35 – the amount she had saved for her shoes – equivalent to more than $275 in today’s money.
Leila set the piece on her dresser and studied it more closely. She asked clients if they had ever seen anything else like it. Finally, an antique dealer told Leila that the dealer knew where to find another one.
She also bought that piece. Leila fell in love with the works of art created from human hair – the wreaths, the jewelry, the elaborate arrangements. She bought and collected and bought some more, growing her collection long before the Internet and websites like eBay ever existed.
The framed pieces were kept in closets and under the beds in the Cohoon home. Opening a museum to display them didn’t cross Leila’s mind until she had too many.
“When I look at them, I see them totally different from other people,” she says. “It’s the only piece of that human being that’s still here, that I can touch. Man, that’s special. ... Never once did I think of it as being spooky or funny – I think of it as art.”
In 1989, Leila dedicated a room at her cosmetology school solely to her hair wreaths collection. By 2000, the collection had outgrown the room, and Leila’s Hair Museum opened at 1333 S. Noland Road, where people from across the United States and the world have visited.
For more than 30 years, Leila studied the hair wreaths, slowly teaching herself how to make similar creations. To her knowledge, no instructional guides are in existence that teach people how to make the wreaths, so Leila is writing books of her own, in addition to teaching classes on making the wreaths.
Page 4 of 4 - She jokes that the Noland Road location, known as the only hair museum in the world, will never run out of room, even though it now holds more than 400 hair wreaths and more than 2,000 pieces of jewelry made of human hair.
“There’s nothing on the ceiling,” she says.
Technically speaking, Leila retired six years ago – but the 80-year-old resident of Lake Lotawana isn’t showing signs of slowing down any time soon.
The steadfast Republican also is well-known for her involvement in politics, serving as a delegate to the Republican National Convention several times. Leila’s clients are used to her outspoken nature, she says.
“I listen to their opinions; they listen to mine,” Leila says. “That’s it. I think that’s the way it should be.
Leila also is leading a project in Missouri called “Women’s Purple Heart Quilt Trail.” She is working to find Missouri women who’ve received a Purple Heart, have a quilt made in their honor and then have it displayed at the next National Federation of Republican Women convention in 2013.
“That’s just her nature, to give it 100 percent in whatever she gets involved in,” Don says.
In 60 years of hairdressing, Leila has seen it all, from the curling iron and blow dryer to changes in men’s haircuts, thanks to The Beatles.
“I’m still just as excited about it as I was at the very beginning,” Leila says of her cosmetology career, “and I can’t get enough of this hair.”
As she tells the cosmetology college students: “You have to run fast in hairdressing to keep up because it changes all the time,” Leila says.
She also tells her students that cosmetology “is a license to fly.”
“I get involved in so many things that sometimes, it doesn’t seem real,” Leila says. “...My whole life has just been live a day at a time, and just keep going – it’s amazing to me what all shows up.
“I wish everybody could have the life I have lived, simply because of my cosmetology license. I can’t say enough for it. If I could do it, I’d start all over again. It’s been that great.”