Hairdresser Judy Butts of Oil City will retire this month after a career that was launched by a well-timed joke and then wound its way through a lot of Oil City's history.
On a typically overcast winter's day in northwest Pennsylvania, Butts sat at her current place of employment, Today's Cutting Edge on Center Street in Oil City, and brightened the day with her stories.
Her knack for telling stories, in fact, won her a scholarship to Oil City's Wilmar's Beauty school many years ago.
"I was a senior in high school, Cranberry High School," Butts recalled. "It was in the '60s, and a fellow came into our home economics class. I wanted to be a home economics teacher, but this fellow, William Dye, offered a full scholarship to Wilmar's. He owned the school, which used to be between Sycamore and Center streets, but the building burned down some years ago. Only thing was, I had to win a contest."
"There were eight of us contestants," Butts continued. "We had to write essays, and then we had to compete in a beauty contest. Each girl had to perform in some way for the contest. My talent was talking, I guess, and so I planned a presentation on good grooming. It was probably going to be a pretty boring speech, but on my way to the contest, my dad told me a joke, probably to calm me down."
Butts decided to retell the joke at the end of her speech.
"It went like this," she recalled. "If you are bald in front, you're a thinker. If you're bald in back, you're sexy. If you are bald in the front and back, you think you are sexy."
At the punchline, the master of ceremonies, standing beside her on-stage, spontaneously and dramatically swept off his top hat, bowed ceremoniously, and showed everyone that "he was balder than a billiard ball," Butts said. "Everyone roared. I think that is why I won the contest."
From that inspired beginning, Butts, as the winner of the contest, was elegantly arrayed on a seat, attired in a red velvet robe and a crown, and carried aloft on a float, to ride in regal solitude in the Autumn Leaf Festival parade in Clarion in 1967.
She admitted it was pretty heady stuff for a young woman.
Winning that contest opened up a career of 51 years of fixing people's hair, and Butts can recall a list of hair salons in Oil City where she worked and struck up friendships with "many wonderful people." She worked at Jeannette's, then Arnold Smith's, and then Louise's Coiffures.
"Louise Miller had a very elegant place. She put a spa in the basement," Butts said. "She had an exquisite dress shop on the second floor, and behind it a beauty shop. The salon had crystal chandeliers and hot pink velvet chairs. I felt like I was working in New York City when I worked there."
After Butts had married and had two children, Holly in 1982 and Heidi in 1984, she left the beauty salons located in the business sections of town and instead opened a salon in her home.
When her girls grew up, she returned in 2004 to the Golden Touch salon "on State Street in the South Side in the old Grimm's Jewelry Store building," Butts said.
"I had been there awhile, and then Martha Peterson Slocum, the owner, asked me to take it over," Butts said. "I did so, and, well, just my luck, I was there only one year and then they tore down the building. I had to find a new place. So I kept the Golden Touch name, but rented the same building that Louise's North Side salon had been in."
Butts would spend six years at Golden Touch, closing its doors in 2012.
"I decided I didn't want to own a business anymore. I had had enough," she said.
The most recent, and what will be the last salon where Butts has worked, is Today's Cutting Edge, owned by Traci Hansen, whose tastefully decorated walls and counters were further brightened by red and green decorations for Christmas, on the gray morning when Butts talked about her career and the others there sometimes joined in with their memories.
Butts knew some history about the building where the salon is located.
"The reason it is so long and narrow is because it was once a bowling alley - in the '50s and '60s," she said. "In the 1800s it was a hotel and a restaurant, and I think it also had some kind of exclusive club here, a men's club. Then Mary Roemer owned a salon here in the 1960s."
Butts' personal history includes a rather unusual development in her career as a hairdresser.
"I started a side job in the 1980s working for Morrison's Funeral Home (in Oil City). They had asked me then to style the hair of the cadavers."
"At first it was hard," Butts said. "I was a little unsettled after the first time and needed a glass of wine. But then I saw it was a good thing for me to do for people."
After 30 some years as the funeral home's "main stylist," Butts concluded that "it was one of the nicest things I could do for a person. A lot of my clients, as a matter of fact, found out that I did this and then asked me beforehand if I would do this for them when they passed away. Some of them would even put it in their wills that they wanted me to style their hair after they had died."
Butts also said she has a special heart for the elderly.
"I have a caring type feeling for the elderly," she said. "I go into Seneca Court and Town Towers and into their homes when older people cannot get out to get their hair done, and I fix their hair. I have really gone all over the surrounding area doing this for them. "
"My reward through all these many years of being a hairdresser has been two things - the friendship of many people and the opportunity to care for the elderly," Butts said. "I've even been asked to fix the hair of some who were dying. I needed special equipment because they were lying in their beds. It was wonderful just to see the pleasure I could give them doing this for them."
Butts will retire Dec. 21 and will leave for a four-month trip to Florida the next day.
"But when I return to Oil City, I hope to continue to fix the hair of the homebound," she said.