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WWII veteran tells how he went from farm boy to NY hairstylist

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By TOM LOEWY | The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Ill. | Published: March 9, 2019

KNOXVILLE, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Each soul who occupies one of the 169 beds inside the Knox County Nursing Home has led a life filled with stories.

Tales of love and loss. War and peace. Happiness and sadness. All are specific and told by some of the area's oldest residents.

Lyonel Nelson is one of those residents. And the 98-year-old can tell a story.

"I just had my birthday Dec. 16 and I'm living here because I fell and hurt my hip," Nelson said after being wheeled from one of the nursing home's gathering areas to its paperback-filled library.

"I've been a farm boy and I served in World War II and I was a hairstylist to some of the most well-known people in New York. And I even wrote a book. These days I'm happy to be at a place like this – happy to have people to talk to.

"The key to living 98 years is good genes. But you have to stay in it. Be involved. When I got hurt I lost contact with so many things. I'm really trying to connect again."

Nelson has never been afraid of being different, or leaving the comfort of the family farm in Victoria.

"Even as I got older and developed my career, a male hairstylist was not a very common sight. It was unusual," Nelson said. "Let me tell you the why and how of it.

"It started in 1938, after I graduated from Victoria High School. There was very little to encourage a young man – besides going into farming. But I knew this hairdresser, and I saw that she was making between $15 and $18 dollars a day doing hair for women. I saw that and I wanted to make that kind of money."

Nelson left the family farm for Chicago. There he learned to be a hairdresser and realized he had a keen interest in business.

Nelson didn't settle for Chicago.

"I proved to have some ability as a hairdresser and I decided to spend some time in California," he explained. "I was only there for about six months, but I did something that proved to be really valuable later – I got a California driver's license."

In 1943 Nelson joined the United States Navy. He would end up in Guam, but before that journey he spent nine months in San Francisco.

"We were all lined up one day and they asked if anyone had a California driver's license," Nelson said. "I raised my hand and the next thing I knew I was given a Ford station wagon and I ended driving for Capt. David Bowman and his family.

"It was a wonderful opportunity."

In Guam, Nelson helped build hospitals for soldiers wounded in the Pacific Theater.

"Guam was a strange, intense place," he said. "It was raw. Unsettled. We had just secured the island, but there were pockets of the enemy still roaming about. It was relatively safe, but the war had left it all shot up and dirty."

Nelson served until 1946 and eventually attended Knox College on the G.I. Bill. There he studied political science, business administration and writing.

In the mid-1950s he moved to New York City and worked as a hairdresser.

"Those were the days when all my interests came together," he said. "I became something of an artist with hair, and I was in demand. And I had interesting clients."

One of Nelson's clients was Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred Knopf. Together they founded a publishing empire and Blanche Knopf founded her own imprint.

"She had a stable of about 25 writers," Nelson said. "It was such an interesting time – I got to see the rise of corporate culture.

"I was intensely interested in the manner in which a number of small businesses are bought by a larger business, the way the economy changed."

He wrote about his life in the book "From Farm to Fifth Avenue" and returned to the area.

"This area was always my home," he said. "I always came back to visit and I did not feel bad about returning. It's nice to have a home.

"After fracturing my hip I'm trying to get my groove back I've been a little bit out of contact. Here at the nursing home I'm getting good care and I'm getting a chance to get it back together. Life is about taking chances and meeting challenges.

"This is just another one of those times."

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(c)2019 The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Ill
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