Lifelong hairdresser passed on zest for life

Joan Concilio |

One of the best things I learned as a reporter was that everyone – EVERYONE – has a story. And sometimes, instead of asking questions, the best thing to do as a journalist is to sit and wait. That’s how I connected with Denise Keller, who talked with me about her aunt Viola through some of the best phrases I’ve ever heard.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2003, in the York Daily Record.

By Joan Concilio, Daily Record staff

Viola Slaseman was a pistol.

In the eulogy she read at Viola’s funeral, her great-niece, Denise Keller, said Viola was the kind of person who was “bull-headed, just full of spit and vinegar.” Viola died Jan. 10 at the age of 93, after a lifetime of dedication to her work and her family.

After graduating from Red Lion Area Senior High School in 1928 and the York School of Beauty Culture in 1929, Viola started her own hairdressing salon, Viola’s Beauty Shop, in Red Lion.

A few years later, her clients from Stewartstown started mentioning that they didn’t have a good beautician in that area, according to Viola’s niece, Theresa Adams. So Viola moved her home and her shop to that town, where she lived for around 60 years.

She cut mostly women’s hair, but also worked with some kids and a few men. She kept up with whatever styles were in fashion at the time. Theresa, who spent a lot of her youth in the salon with her aunt, said she remembered “watching her do those older-style permanent waves, the kind with the heavy gel that you pushed in with your fingers.”

Viola’s life outside the salon kept her busy. She made her own sauerkraut, canned tomatoes and peaches, and showed her niece and her great-niece, Denise Keller, how to do the same. Viola brought Denise from her home in Craley to Viola’s place in Stewartstown each weekend while Denise was growing up. Later, Denise, now 38, continued to visit Viola each weekend, and counted on the older woman to help her raise her own son, 6-year-old Alex.

In addition to those activities, Viola underwent three bouts of cancer and chemotherapy. She’d also had four or five hernia operations, but refused to let those illnesses change her outlook on life.

“One time, I went down to her place. . . . This was right after she had the chemotherapy,” Theresa said. “And she had a scarf on her head, and she was part of the way up this tree, sawing a limb off.”

Viola even went so far as to ask her doctors for “pep pills,” Theresa said. “She told them, ‘I have things to do, I have to have energy, I have to keep going.'”

Viola always had spoken up for what she wanted. She was the tomboy of her family, and the only one out of the 11 siblings to graduate from high school. Theresa said her mother, Dorothy Knisley, who now lives in East Prospect, was always more relaxed.

It wasn’t that Viola did anything that bad. “She was just hard to handle sometimes,” Theresa said. “I know my mom said sometimes she was embarrassed to be her sister.”

Viola’s great-niece, Denise, said Viola was always getting in trouble and blaming it on Dorothy. One time, Denise said, Viola was smoking corn husks behind the family’s outhouse. She forgot to stamp one out, and the outhouse burnt down. And she blamed that on Dorothy, although Denise said the girls’ mother knew who the guilty sister really was.

If she was deceptive as a child, as an adult, Viola was almost brutally honest.

“If she thought you were fat, well, she’d tell you,” Theresa said. “You had to know how to take her. . . . I was used to it, but if you didn’t know her, you could get upset.”

Viola was even able to talk frankly about her age and her own mortality.

When she faced her first bout of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, she was given only six months to live. But when Denise came to the hospital to visit her, she said, “Dammit, I’m not ready to die yet.”

Later, after the cancer was in remission, she told Theresa that she was “just going to keep working until I drop dead.”

She did work until January of 2002, just about a year before her death. She’d always worked at other jobs in addition to the beauty shop, which she closed in 2000, and most recently, she made subs at the Red Lion Rutter’s. She worked there for five years, even winning the “Employee of the Month” award. During some of that time, while still running the salon, she had a third job as a greeter at the former Kmart in Shrewsbury.

Sometimes, she’d get up at 3 a.m. to get in to work at Rutter’s by 5 a.m. “We worried about her, because she’d go out there to Red Lion in just all kinds of weather,” Theresa said.

Viola said the family worried too much. She kept her house and paid the bills on her own, although Theresa and Denise did a lot to help her when she was sick.

In February of 2002, Viola had to have her leg amputated. It was a month or so before that surgery that she had to quit at Rutter’s.

After the operation, she moved to Broadmore Assisted Living, but she didn’t want to go. She thought places like that were full of “old people,” Denise said.

“But she just kept going,” Theresa said. “That was the kind of person she was.”

And though her will to live carried Viola for almost 20 years after her first diagnosis of cancer, when congestive heart failure and kidney failure put her in the hospital for the last time, she had a different message for her loved ones: “Denise, I’m ready to die now,” she said.

“And in the end, I think it was her determination to live that gave her the courage to pass,” Denise said.