Braided together in friendship

Donato’s Hair Salon owner Leah Farris and her client of 57 years– education activist Barbara Wolfe– share their stories

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Braided together in friendship

Leah Farris (standing), owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, styles the hair of Barbara Wolfe, her longest-term client, friend and education activist

Leah Farris (standing), owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, styles the hair of Barbara Wolfe, her longest-term client, friend and education activist

Photos by Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Leah Farris (standing), owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, styles the hair of Barbara Wolfe, her longest-term client, friend and education activist

Photos by Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Photos by Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Leah Farris (standing), owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, styles the hair of Barbara Wolfe, her longest-term client, friend and education activist

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Some of the angel statues perched between the polished-wood stations of Donato’s Hair Salon represent “the ladies,” according to owner Leah Farris– clients she has known over 50 years who’ve become friends, including some who have passed.

“Though they’re gone, they’re still with us,” she said in an interview with the Signal Tribune.

Most of her remaining clients now are seniors, Farris said. Many have moved away to be closer to their children or because of health reasons.

“For a while there, I was doing more funerals,” she said.

But Farris feels grateful to the ladies she still serves, including 11 clients who have been with her for more than 45 years.

“We get together once a week, and it’s like having a tea party,” Farris said with palpable warmth. “It’s rare that somebody stays with you as long as they have.”

Leah Farris, owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, reminisces over photos of clients she has had over decades who have passed away

She even styles four generations in one family– a woman, her mother, her daughter and her granddaughter. As a hairdresser, Farris said she’s privileged to get to know her clients intimately.

“A lot of times, we know more about your life than your children do,” she said.
Farris said she started hairdressing on Feb. 24, 1962, at Hammond’s Hairstyling in Lakewood, after graduating from the Marinello School of Beauty, while also modeling.

“We did a lot of important people there in Lakewood,” Farris recalled. “We did the Miss Universe people when I worked there.”

She then joined Mr. D’s Coiffures in Long Beach when Hammond’s closed, and finally Donato’s Hair Salon, at 4102 Orange Ave., taking over the business in 1996 when its owner retired.

Barbara Wolfe
Of all her clients over the decades, one in particular stands out as her “crowning star”– Barbara Wolfe, whom Farris has known the longest, since she first started hairdressing 57 years ago.

“I was 18 when I first met Barbara,” Farris said. “Young and unmarried. […] She watched me become a grandmother, and I watched her become a great-grandmother. We went through a lot together.”

Beyond being her friend, Wolfe is exemplary for her community service, Farris said, having dedicated her retirement years to bettering early-childhood education in Long Beach and lobbying for national issues.

Leah Farris (left), owner of Donato’s Hair Salon in Long Beach, with Barbara Wolfe (right), her longest-term client, friend and education activist

“She’s always giving of herself,” Farris said. “She’s quite the lady.”

Wolfe had been hospitalized with pneumonia recently, but recovered in time to make her Wednesday morning appointment with Leah and speak with the Signal Tribune. At 91, Wolfe appears luminous and is articulately droll.

“I saw Leah and liked what she did and how she was with her customers,” Wolfe said of first meeting Farris at Hammond’s nearly six decades ago. “I was working, and I liked to get my hair done at eight o’clock in the morning.”

Initially trained as a nurse, Wolfe had returned to work after her children started school, she said, first earning degrees in hospital administration from Cal State Long Beach and Pepperdine University.

Of returning to school at that time, Wolfe said she had first applied to UCLA, but didn’t fit their profile.

“They told me, quite frankly, that they didn’t want a white, middle-aged woman in the graduate program, because they could say that at that time,” she said. “They needed men, and they needed minorities.”

At 42, Wolfe began working as an assistant administrator at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City, retiring after 18 years, around the time HMOs were changing the healthcare industry.

“I worked at a good time, when Kaiser was small,” she said. “Now I went by [the building], and I didn’t even recognize it.”

Since then, Wolfe has made a second career of community involvement, serving on the board of the Long Beach Early Childhood Education Committee (LBECE) and community-service vice president for the National Council of Jewish Woman (NCJW), Long Beach.

Wolfe recalled how several years ago, she had approached Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent of schools for Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), about volunteering. He described needing a program to help local children and their parents become more prepared for kindergarten and assigned her to a working committee of seven teachers, principals and librarians.

“We just sort of sat and said, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’” Wolfe quipped. “We worked for about a year before it was formulated.”

The committee came up with the Kindergarten Festival in 2005, a program offered four times a year between January and March that includes reading with children and sending them home with books.

When Wolfe reported on this work to the NCJW, they offered to volunteer by packing backpacks with school supplies for the children, though funds were short.

Fortunately, a generous donation of $20,000 from people Wolfe knew helped alleviate that concern.

“Along came a couple– Mr. and Mrs. Jack Barrow– who loved the program,” she said. “I knew them from our temple. And then we didn’t have to worry anymore about getting the backpacks.”

Wolfe was also responsible for getting the city’s police and fire departments involved in the program, first approaching Jim McDonnell, who was Long Beach police chief at the time.

“He said that what the police were trying to do is to start early with the children– to see the uniforms in good positions, in helping positions,” Wolfe said. “Instead of many, many of these children only seeing the police when they come to the house to take their father off to jail.”

Wolfe then approached the fire department chief, who also agreed to participate.

“The first time he came, I didn’t say, ‘Don’t bring the fire engine,’” Wolfe recalled. “So, he brings the fire engine and, of course, whatever the kids and parents were doing, forget it– they saw that fire engine and came running.”

Wolfe estimates that the festival has impacted 5,000 to 6,000 children and parents since its inception. Though she said the program may be winding down, she is pleased Mayor Robert Garcia is honoring a promise he had made before his 2018 reelection to add an official position overseeing early-childhood education.

“Just before the election, I had a meeting with him, wanting to remind him of what he’d said,” Wolfe recalled. “He said, ‘I knew you would show up!’ […] [It went] from something that started as a little program to something that the mayor of the city takes notice of– and [who] sees the preschool program as, ‘The earlier you can teach a child, the longer they’re going to stay in school.’”

Though Wolfe doesn’t take personal credit, LBECE has appreciated her effort and stature in the organization.

“I emailed [the committee] that I’m so proud of what they’re doing with the children’s program,” Wolfe recalled. “And they sent me back the most lovely thing– something like, ‘It was only done on the shoulders of those persons who made it happen to begin with, and you’re one of the shoulders that we’ve leaned on all these years.’”

Wolfe believes her age allows her to take more initiative with officials to get things done.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be able, in my life, to meet the people that I have,” Wolfe said. “At my age, I don’t have the modesty of not going up and talking to [people]. When you’re younger, you don’t have that confidence. So, at my age, what have I got to lose?”

One such encounter Wolfe recalled was with former First Lady Hillary Clinton, with whom Wolfe had met to initiate a program called HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) in Long Beach after Clinton had implemented it in Arkansas. Wolfe managed to run the program in four local schools before LBUSD funds dried up.

Years later, Clinton remembered her when Wolfe approached her at a convention.

“I had a nice little conversation with her,” Wolfe said of going up to where Clinton had been speaking. “I came back, and my girlfriend said, ‘Barbara, everybody around here is ready to kill that bitch who was taking all the time with Hillary.’”

Besides education, Wolfe said her efforts with the NCJW include lobbying in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. on amendments and bills, as well as current committee work on human trafficking.

“She’s been very busy all her life working for the community,” Farris said of her friend. “She’s won many national awards, as well. I’m very proud of her.”
And Wolfe’s friendship means the world to her, Farris said.

“She’s family,” Farris said. “We’ve been through a lot– good times, bad times. As life goes on, we’ve gone over the bumps together.”

But both women talked about being part of a different generation and lamented things changing.

“I remember my mother saying to me, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have any children to raise because it was so much easier for me,’” Wolfe mused. “And I hear me saying, ‘I’m so glad my children are raised, because look what’s going on now.’”

Farris also reminisced about times changing, but that she is carrying on.

“Our generation of people are not getting their hair done every week like they used to,” she said. “I’ve been here all this time, but you never know how long that’s going to last. Life throws boulders at you. I’m still with it. I’ll be here as long as I can.”