For almost 28 years, Priscilla Laff has cut and styled hair at Brookdale Oak Park, 1111 Ontario St. Nov. 1, after a long and fulfilling career, Laff worked her last day at her salon, located inside the senior living community. The day before, Brookdale staff threw Laff a retirement party, where she and her loyal Brookdale clients-turned-friends celebrated a new and exciting chapter of her life.
Prior to cutting the celebratory cake, Laff gave a tearful, heartfelt address. "I have been blessed with the good fortune of operating this hair salon since its grand opening on May 20, 1992 when it was known as Holley Court," she said to the crowd. "I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to have met so many wonderful people. It has been a truly amazing journey."
Laff got her beauty license in 1986. In 1987, Laff approached Oak Park Hospital, now Rush Oak Park Hospital. "I asked them if they needed hair care and they didn't know what I was talking about," she said with a laugh. "I explained to them I would come in once a week and go room to room, and give people a shampoo, a haircut if they needed, blow dry, curling iron."
She charged only $10 for the services. The hospital accepted. Not long after, she expanded serving patients at Westlake, West Suburban and La Grange Memorial hospitals in addition to those at Rush Oak Park. The spirits of patients brightened considerably after having their hair done. "It was a real transformation," Laff said. She also made house calls.
"I had cards made up that said, 'Have scissors, will travel,' and I would give them to all the patients," Laff said. "If they couldn't get out when they came home, I would go to their house."
While working at West Sub, Laff found out about Holley Court Terrace, which became Brookdale Oak Park in 2014. "West Suburban Hospital built this whole building and decided to open a retirement community.
"I saw the plans and asked, 'Is there going to be a beauty shop in there? I'd like to run it,'" Laff said. "They said, 'Sure, it's yours.'"
"Brady Bunch" star Florence Henderson was the guest celebrity at the opening of Holley Court Terrace and then would often stop by to visit Laff. "There are pictures of Florence Henderson in the beauty shop and she was just a riot," said Laff's sister Ceil Bolton.
Although Henderson had one of TV history's most recognizable hairdos – the cropped and flipped bob she wore as Carol Brady – Laff never had the opportunity to style her hair. Laff does have a picture of her playfully messing up Henderson's hair.
Henderson isn't the only TV talent she got to know through her work. Laff also met Oak Park-born actress Busy Philipps, whose grandfather lived in Brookdale and would get haircuts from Laff. Philipps starred in "Freaks and Geeks," "Cougartown" and more. "She's very cool," Laff said of Philipps. "And so was her grandfather."
Laff got to know politicians as well through her work, including James R. Thompson, former Illinois governor, whose mother Agnes Thompson lived in the retirement community and got her hair coiffed by Laff. Thompson visited regularly.
"[Agnes] was very low-profile here, but when he would come in, he would do all the talking," Bolton said. "He would say, 'Mom likes this,' and, 'Mom doesn't like that.' Laff called Gov. Thompson "very friendly and approachable."
Other notable past clients of Laff's include Jeannette Fields, who spent two decades as Wednesday Journal's architecture columnist and with whom Laff became very close, and Elizabeth Marcus, who was one of the few women on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The Manhattan Project produced the United States' first nuclear weapons. Marcus studied the radiation effects of atomic bombs.
Her current Brookdale clients, although happy and excited for Laff, who plans to travel to Europe next year, are sad to see her go.
"I'm sorry she's leaving us, but she's earned it," said Irene Goren. "She's been here and worked hard." Laff has been doing Goren's hair since she moved into Brookdale 11 years ago.
"I think she was very devoted to her clients, all of us," she said. "I think most of the people who live here have gone to her."
In addition to cutting Goren's hair, Laff has also been helping her keep it clean. "Lately she has even been washing my hair," Gorgen said. "I have trouble with my right arm, can't get it up. She's very devoted to her clients."
Margie Latinovich, whose hair Laff has done for seven or eight years, is also going to miss her. "I'm really sad about her leaving. We had a nice relationship," Latinovich said. "I don't want her to go, truly. She's a good person."
The decision to retire was difficult for Laff who said she had to stop herself from "bawling" at the party.
"You get so close with so many people; I've grown with them," Laff said of her career. "There are people here who have lived here for 20 years and they've brought their grandchildren here, and now they're all grown up and married with their own kids. I'm really going to miss the camaraderie."
She is also going to miss the creative satisfaction that comes with doing hair.
"When a person's head comes out of the sink and it's all wet, and you have to create something from that, it's so fulfilling. You're an artist," she said.
It brings Laff joy to see her clients looking good; "They're happy and I know I did that."
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