At the age of 93, Clark “Lyonel” Nelson ’51 has accomplished something worthy of his long life: he has published a memoir.
His e-book, “From Haystacks to Hairstyles: My journey from rural roots to grooming prominent personalities at Arden’s 5th Avenue Salon,” details his life as a young person growing up during the Great Depression, his time in the Navy, at Knox and later in New York, where he styled the hair of some of the city’s most prominent personalities.
“I’ve had a very, very interesting life,” Nelson said. “I just had a world of experiences that I’m very fortunate to have. I think very few people of my age do.”
Those “haystacks” that Nelson comes from are located in Victoria, Illinois, about 20 minutes away from Knox. Realizing that there weren’t many prospects for farmers at the time, Nelson found work as a hairdresser after graduating high school in 1938.
“As a young fellow, I had an urge, an ability, an interest in being creative in some way,” he said. “Of course, at that time and especially in the area, there were no art galleries, there were no museums, there was no way I could become acquainted with creative work. But there was a hairdresser in Victoria that kind of took me under her wing because I was interested in it.”
After finding this creative outlet in Chicago, Nelson traveled to California and became certified as a hairdresser there as well. Nine months later, it was time to join the Navy.
Nelson served the Navy for almost four years, working both in the U.S. and in the South Pacific. He had also had some experience with the medical corps, and there he became acquainted with doctors and other people who had received higher education.
He realized it was necessary for him to have further education, and so he “took advantage of the G.I. Bill and came to Knox.”
When he enrolled, he was 27 years old, and so felt that he “didn’t have a lot in common with the frat boys and young students.” He lived at home in Victoria and commuted, eventually getting a degree in Political Science.
After graduation, Nelson decided to open his own hair salon in Galesburg. He had a “very successful business” and “came in contact with a lot of fine people,” some of whom also worked in the industry. He realized he wanted to expand his profession, and so he sold his shop after four years and moved to New York.
There, he worked at the Elizabeth Arden salon on Fifth Avenue for 12 years. It was during this time that he met the likes of Blanchette Rockefeller and, perhaps most importantly, Blanche Knopf, who had a publishing house.
“Somewhere along the line, she took interest in me and became my mentor,” Nelson said. “She said to me many times, ‘Young man, you got a book in you.’”
That encouragement led Nelson to start keeping notes over the years. He recorded stories and other things that happened to him, and also kept photographs. Everything collected into a manuscript for a memoir.
“I realized about two years ago that if I was going to do something about it, I had to get serious,” he said.
That’s where Stephen Anderson came in. The two had met through a mutual friend, and would often chat over breakfast.
“The first thing that struck me about Lyonel, other than the fact that he’s an excellent cook, was his eagerness to learn,” Anderson said in an email. “In addition to the fact that he bought his first computer in his eighties, Lyonel was very well-informed in a lot of areas — culture, art, politics — and always seeking out new information.”
Indeed, it was Nelson’s idea to get his stories published in the e-book format. What Anderson did was help him figure out how to do that, along with editing and revising Nelson’s manuscript.
“I studied English Rhetoric in undergrad and have a knack for seeing how pieces fit together, so editing and organizing a memoir like this was a great fit,” Anderson said.
Nelson credits him for doing more than just that, though.
“The hardest part of writing the book was to be dedicated and be deliberate about it. It was easy to put it aside for a while, but then with the help, I was encouraged to push and to get it done,” he said.
Since publishing his book in early April, Nelson feels “very proud of it. I have accomplished a goal in writing a memoir that I am very proud to share.”
And so far, Nelson and Anderson have received nothing but positive criticism about the work.
Anderson also has a special attachment to the memoir.
“Though few people have been lucky enough to get to know Lyonel the way I have, through this book other people will be able to know him, at least in a small way, and be enriched by his life and his story the way I have.”
“From Haystacks to Hairstyles” is available on Amazon for $3.99.