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Five decades and going strong: Tollefson celebrating dream job

Fifty years is a long time but when you are caught up doing something you love, time becomes relative.

Dorene Tollefson has been in the hair styling business for five decades and wouldn't have it any other way. And she's not throwing the retirement towel in yet, she figures she has another six to eight years to give.

As a way of conforming with her clients, all of them now over age 50, she's let her brown colored hair take on its natural hue and she's happy she did. "I love having gray hair because I pretty much work with gray hair."

She gives credit for the success she has experienced to the upbringing she had and to a community that welcomed her business with open arms.

Growing up in Regent, N.D., one of twelve kids, Tollefson developed a strong work ethic early on thanks to the teachings of her parents who were both "very ambitious people not afraid of hard work. When I was ten I was the oldest girl at home so before my mother went out to help in the field she would tell me what to make for lunch and supper for 12 people. And I knew if I didn't get something done it would mean more work for others. How many kids at 10 now would view things that way?"

That attitude served her well through her high school years until graduating from St. Mary's of New England. Also pregnant at the time, she was asked by her mother, "Do you think you should go to school?"

"I had no idea what I was going to do," Tollefson recalled. "No one asked if we had any plans and we certainly didn't ask ourselves. So I saw an ad on television for Josef's School of Hair Design Academy ( I thought St. Joseph's) in Fargo and I started June 3, 1963."

After completing school, Tollefson heard about an opening in West Fargo. "At that time, people in Fargo always seemed to look down on West Fargo. I applied and got the job."

Ginger Dost worked in the shop known as West Fargo Fashions, where Audrey's is now located on Sheyenne St.

Tollefson said that Ginger didn't want to hire her "because I had too much confidence. Little did she know I was really scared to death. She couldn't resist and I worked with her until my husband, Vic, and I started talking about our own beauty shop."

"When we mentioned it to her she told us 'we were nuts,' "so we put the idea away for awhile."

After Ginger took over ownership of her own shop, the topic came up again and she decided to help the Tollefsons. "She knew what to do and sold us some equipment. We spent $1000 to get going at the time."

Little did she know that would be the start of something big.

During her career, Tollefson operated four shops in West Fargo -- three in her home and one on Main Avenue. The first three shops operated under the name Dorene's Snip and Snarl and the last took on the Dorene's Beauty Shop moniker.

Her first shop was in the basement of their house on Seventh Avenue.

The second another basement shop directly across the street in the former Doc Kulland home they had purchased.

This arrangement worked out perfectly. Tollefson had a sitter come in that would leave later in the day. "It was a wonderful way to raise a family and still have a job."

The third was the Main Avenue shop rented near the old Dairy Queen where she ended up spending 12 years. "That was a lot of fun but a lot of work. We put an apartment next door, and when our children were in college they lived there."

Then came the divorce from Vic seventeen years ago with Tollefson branching out on her own. They are still great friends and she considers him a big part of why these dreams have happened for her."I could always tell him what I wanted and with a little pushing he got it done. We still do a lot of family things together."

Tollefson's next endeavor was building a house on 17th Avenue East in Charlewood making the beauty shop an extension of her living room, which she believes is the way any good shop should flow. Adding to the aesthetics is a tranquil mural, a beautiful climbing ivy plant now covering an entire wall, and sunlight beaming in a window clad north wall providing a scenic view of the lake.

"It's a small shop but so efficient," said Tollefson. "I've been here for almost 15 years and I've had nothing but happiness."

Through the years there have been obvious changes, specifically her clientele. "They were 30 and 40 when I started but now they are getting up there," she shared. "I have a couple of them that have been coming here all 49 years. My favorites are all the gals in their 70s and 80s. They are really neat people, honest with themselves, easy to work with, and always on time."

In the beginning Tollefson tried to keep up with the trends by going to classes at least twice a year but as she got older that became obsolete. "My daughter, DeAnn, worked in my shop for seven years and she catered to the younger clientele."

Working with her daughter was wonderful, Tollefson beamed, adding that all of her children were extremely supportive of her efforts as both a businesswoman and mother.

Family includes her children and grandchildren who all live in West Fargo: daughter, DeAnn Wagenman and her husband, Paul, and children, Tayla, 21, attending college in Sioux Falls, and Devin, 18; and son Dane and wife Jodi, and their children, Dillan, 5, Shea, 3, and Madden, 2. Her oldest son, Dean, passed away in 1984 as a result on an automobile accident in San Diego, where he was in the Marine Corps. At that time, for the family life stopped for a while but slowly moved forward again.

Proudly her children and grandchildren will be among the guests invited to a special 50th anniversary celebratory occasion Tollefson will be hosting for a small group of family members and special friends.

Tollefson is quick to add she doesn't take these special friends lightly affirming that she is truly blessed to have all of them gracing her life. "I have many clients who are not customers they are family. They held me up when my son died and now I try to do that for them. I have no trophies on any of my shelves but I try to lift everybody's spirits and when I do that I feel like I am the biggest winner of all."

She accomplishes that by living that philosophy daily focusing "on what I can do personally to help make others feel better in their lives -- like taking brownies to a new neighbor or doing a lot of little things no one knows about. I love taking meals to people."

Tollefson said she really likes working alone because of its therapeutic value. It allows her to "get down to the nitty gritty with clients about the way they are feeling. When they are sad I can let them be sad," here mentioning a special lady who was suffering from painful, arthritic like hands. "I sat down and held her hands and said 'I wish everybody who loves you could take a little bit of this away' and she was so touched that she just opened up like a book. It's a personal thing so you get to layers others aren't able to and maybe end up helping them in some little way just by listening if nothing else."

In fact, her experiences have taught her lifelong lessons as well, so much so, she told an old friend Dr. Robert Geston that if she could do other things with her life they would focus on helping people deal with depression without medications, and offering advice on prescription control, firmly believing the way an individual lives their life and the way they are treated by others is a huge determining factor in building and boosting morale.

In the meantime morale building will continue to be at the front and center of her work ethic, as Tollefson reiterates she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. "I like to work. It makes me feel good. Loving your job has a lot to do with attitude."

She still sees about 50 people a week working Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. In her heyday she could manage 20 to 25 appointments a day.

Her active clients still number in the two to three hundred range, many now seen only monthly or several times a year instead of weekly. She said "that hairstyles have changed so much. I like to to tell my clients what to do so they can do it themselves at home. But some of them are in trouble if the wind blows," she laughed.

Through the years her very favorite thing to do is "perms because it is a process that really changes someone's looks. I hope their popularity returns some day."

On the flip side her dislikes include permed hair that is worn curly without any styling at all; and straight, straight hair. "I would like to see more body waves," she stated.

As a welcome diversion to hair styling,Tollefson loves attending sporting events involving her grandkids and she is a huge bridge player, often playing 20 hours a week with area friends providing the opportunity to get to know them on a whole new level.

In retrospect, Tollefson said her extended run in the hair styling profession has been a truly gratifying one. "I'm not a person who has big dreams but this really has been a dream job for me. I didn't set out to own a beauty shop or to work 50 years at one thing but the community encouraged it. West Fargo has been a wonderful place to live and do business and I have no desire to ever leave. I moved to West Fargo with no expectations and I found a wonderful world."