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Saturday, July 26, 2014

50 years behind the chair: Nashua’s Fleury has lots of ‘style’

Dean Shalhoup

Plenty of people in these parts can reel off at least a couple of vivid memories of New England’s famous Blizzard of ’78, or are able to spin the tales of being stranded, being rescued or witnessing acts of heroism and strangers helping strangers that we like to believe define us as a people.

Longtime Nashua resident Lorraine Fleury has two, and they’re about as far apart on the happy/sad scale as they can get. ...

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Plenty of people in these parts can reel off at least a couple of vivid memories of New England’s famous Blizzard of ’78, or are able to spin the tales of being stranded, being rescued or witnessing acts of heroism and strangers helping strangers that we like to believe define us as a people.

Longtime Nashua resident Lorraine Fleury has two, and they’re about as far apart on the happy/sad scale as they can get.

Indeed, while howling winds were plastering every unprotected surface with a hybrid of snowflakes and ice crystals that hairy first week of February 1978, Fleury was celebrating a personal and career milestone: opening her own hairstyling salon in a portion of the Gendron Street home she and her late husband, Leo, had built four or five years earlier.

“Some of them actually made it through and kept their appointments,” Fleury said of her clients the other day, looking out onto a sun-splashed driveway and front lawn that looked like the set of “Dr. Zhivago” 461⁄2 years ago.

But come nightfall, tragedy would suddenly drag Fleury and her family in the opposite direction, when news arrived that Fleury’s uncle, the co-owner of a Manchester beverage distributor, collapsed and died during the storm, probably of overexertion.

As she and her family grieved and worked their way through the sudden loss, Fleury kept plenty busy cutting, styling, coloring and whatever else her burgeoning clientele wanted done with their hair. She said it was a good feeling to be able to walk downstairs and down the hall and be at work. She moved around so much during her first five or so years, she has to pause to recall all of the places she worked.

Fifty years at the same job is a long time no matter how you slice it, but in professions such as Fleury’s, you just don’t stop learning. You can’t.

“To this day, I go to classes to learn about new styles, new things,” she said.

That will continue, Fleury added, until she hangs up her shears and turns off her newfangled infrared hair dryer for the last time.

Even 50 years in, that day is still nowhere in sight, Fleury said. And every day she gets behind the chair and sets out to whip up another client-pleasing creation adds one more day to her family’s remarkable timeline in the haircutting and styling business.

That timeline begins more than a century ago, when Fleury’s grandfather Thomas Berube opened a barbershop in the recently razed Labine Building at Ledge and Pine streets.

A 1905 city directory lists Berube as a “hairdresser” rather than barber; Fleury said that’s probably because he accepted both men and women as clientele, which wasn’t uncommon back in the day.

A couple of old photos of her grandfather’s shop show two other barbers/hairdressers, whose names she doesn’t know. One photo shows a boy and a man in two of the three chairs awaiting haircuts. The other shows a young person with long, curly hair – which, given the styles of the era, could be either a boy or girl.

The yearn to cut and style people’s hair apparently skipped a generation, as Fleury’s father was a shoe worker who founded the company’s credit union in pre-World War II Nashua.

Although Fleury didn’t know her grandfather – he contracted tuberculosis and died quite young, she said – he apparently bequeathed to her his penchant for trimming and styling people’s locks.

“I remember being fascinated watching what they could do with hair,” she said of the hairdressers she studied as a young girl tagging along to her mom’s hair appointments.

“It was true hairdressing then,” she added, emphasizing “dressing.”

Soon, she got it: Finger-waves, sculpting, all of it, was for her.

“I developed a great interest in it,” she said, “and I knew what I wanted to do.”

As it happened, Fleury’s mom’s hairdresser had one of Nashua’s most recognizable names in the business: Isadore Guerette, though all Nashuans need to hear is “Isadore” and they know right off who he is.

“Isadore was a naturally talented man,” Fleury said of her mentor, who took her under his wing and even promised her a job if she went to school and graduated.

That she did; Guerette kept his promise, and some 50 years ago this summer, Isadore’s parade of clients were introduced to Guerette’s newest stylist.

It was a time when getting one’s hair done was a fairly risky undertaking, far more complicated and time-consuming than today, Fleury said.

“We curled hair by rolling it on wooden dowels, then zapped them with electrical charges to set them,” she said.

Another way to set hair was to blast it with heat, but that carried its own risks because the heaters were either on or off, unlike today’s thermostat-controlled devices.

“They were hard to use. You were lucky if you didn’t burn them,” she said of the clients.

She soon met a barber named Leo Fleury, who introduced her to a Manchester man named Houle who Fleury believes was the state’s only beauty-products supplier at the time.

The couple later divorced, but remained friends until Leo Fleury died last year.

For her first 15 or so years in the business, Lorraine Fleury was well-traveled, leaving Isadore’s to work for a place called Wig World in Manchester, then returning to Isadore’s. She left again, this time to take a chair at Robert’s – “Not Mr. Roberts,” she points out – on Walnut Street for a year, then it was on to the Ship’s Wheel on Allds Street.

Two or three years later, it was back once again to Isadore’s until the end of 1977, when she left for the third and final time.

Just as work and career can become a diversion during life’s rough spots, Fleury said she feels fortunate she had her vocation to “throw myself into” when she and Leo tragically lost their 2-month-old son in 1983.

“You have to love what you do,” she said philosophically. “And I do.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.