The Valdosta Daily Times
Carol Jeter remembers cradling baby Leigh Ingra before nap time, watching teenage Leigh explore the creeks and railways of South Georgia, teaching undergraduate Leigh during beauty school, tracking professional Leigh as her cosmetology career branched through salons in the heart of Central Florida and passing on the reins of Wiregrass Technical College’s cosmetology department to her best friend, Leigh, when the surrogate mother retired.
The two, Carol and Leigh, are cosmetologist by profession and design — it appears almost hardwired into their vivacious personalities.
“We’ve been friends since, before she ever was — I grew up next door to her aunt,” says Carol. “I knew Leigh when she was in the womb. When she was a tiny baby, I held her. I remember her running around and playing. Her mother, Sammie, was a hair dresser and I always thought that was neat. She would come over and give Aunt Sue and my mom a perm. I’ve known Leigh and her family forever.”
There is a generational gap between the two. Leigh attended school with Carol’s daughter, which serves to establish some form of distinction between the two. Carol earned a beauty license in 1966 at Macon State College, located on Hill Avenue, in Valdosta, across from the street from the pool hall, she says.
When Carol came to work at Wiregrass, then Valdosta Technical Institute, in 1987, Leigh was in her first class, she says.
“Bless her heart,” says Carol. “They had just taken me from industry and told me to teach. There were no books or guides. You were given a book and told to teach. So I taught Leigh. Some people have to work for it. Others are born with it. Leigh was just born with it.”
After school, Leigh went to work for beauty behemoth Regis for roughly nine years and was promoted to the command post over nine salons in Orlando as regional supervisor. Big sister and best friend, Carol, says she was watching and keeping in touch as Leigh or they’d meet at hair shows because Carol says she was simply proud of Leigh.
Leigh says she moved back to Valdosta when her mother fell ill. Carol only wonders were Leigh’s career would be had her family not been stricken with the misfortune.
“My mother was a cosmologist and she had a salon,” says Leigh as she explains her path. “I was just always in salons. I dabbled my hand in nursing for a little bit and decided it wasn’t as fun as hair. When I graduated, I went on to do good things. I’ve been doing hair 25 years now and then I got on with the school full time six years. Carol has been my teacher and she has been my boss.”
If anything good came out of the declining health of Leigh’s mother, it was access to a world-class beautician to the students of Wiregrass Technical College.
“Leigh had such a wealth of experience, having worked at Regis, that she was just such a help to me,” says Carol. “The years that she worked with me were just wonderful. She brought something that was needed to the department. And for the students that have worked under her, they’ve truly learned what it is to be a hairstylist and a good person.“
When you have a history, it’s so easy to work together, says Carol.
“Yoo-hoooooo,” sings Carol as she meets with Leigh at 7 a.m. As the two welcome students into the room before class starts, they sit and talk about personal stuff before the work day begins.
“Working with a friend in a situation where both families know each other, the discipline is taken differently,” says Leigh. “When she’d correct me, I felt as if she was taking care of me. I didn’t feel as if I was getting scolded. I felt as if she was teaching me. She was the coordinator and I was under her. When a dean or someone says something to me, the first thing I think is, ‘uh oh, I’m in trouble.’ But with Carol, it was different.”
It’s different now for Leigh, because her mentor has retired. But the fashion industry has taught both women to embrace change and differences.
“This department is a work in progress — it always has and will be, because that’s the nature of the fashion industry,” says Carol. “Trends in fashion change. Makeup, hair and nails all change and that’s all a part of cosmetology. Now, we’re opening up a barbering program here and that’ll be another dynamic. That’s something Leigh can definitely help out with, but it speaks to how the industry and department are always evolving.”
How people wear their hair and how they cut it may be different, but Leigh says the techniques are timeless. Carol recalls her early days of hair dressing and her rudimentary tool set was composed of a pair of scissors, capes, rollers and something to do with dyes called a “roux fanci full rinse.”
“I remember being in the beauty salon with my mom, I think she’d experiment on me, and they’d plug me into the wall to give me a perm,” says Leigh. “They’d clip these electrodes to your head and dose your hair in solutions. That was just one of the old-type ways. It didn’t curl your hair. It fried it.”
It’s the art rather than the time period that attracts these two bubbly beauticians to their craft, and that same art form has kept Carol and Leigh forever intertwined. For them, beauty is all about making people feel good about themselves and that attitude permeates the hearts of the students who have learned from them.
“Hair dressers march to a different drum, and I really mean that,” says Carol. “We don’t care what people think about us. We’re going to do our own thing and you’ll see the student take on that attribute. They’ll express reservations at first about touching customers. Then, down the line, they’ll get right in there and just love that customer and do everything they can to give them a good experience and boost their confidence.”
Leigh says she got in trouble once with Carol for letting a student leave class early, a practice that has been redacted from her philosophy. We care and want the students to graduate and do great things, says Leigh.
“We stick our necks out there, we have to encourage people and we have to see the good in people,” says Leigh. “In this industry, you can’t be judgmental. Everyone’s got to be equal and that’s something we firmly believe in. Come as you are, because there’s a lot of diversity in here.”
The two women agree that Leigh is the queen of casual, something she says is in direct response to wearing suits daily at Regis and attending a blur of formal events. Carol, on the other-hand, enjoys formal wear.
The two women talk at least once every two weeks, says Leigh. And with what may have been their biggest friendship challenge a few years ago, one that required two hearts to handle, they have even more to talk about in their updates once Leigh had finally gotten the news she was anxiously awaiting.
Leigh had decided she wouldn’t put up a single Christmas item the year. Carol cautioned that she shouldn’t do that.
“Then one day she got the news that she was getting two children,” says Carol. “She had to go to Atlanta numerous times for all of the FBI background checks and other hoops. When she finally got her children, ooh, I've got chills running all over me... I feel like they’re my children.”
Leigh was only expecting one child and she had waited anxiously for a reply from the South Korean government.
“I got a phone call and the woman said well there are two — will you take two?” says Leigh. “I said, are you kidding? God doesn’t give many gifts. But when he does, you take them all. It was girl and a boy. I got the call here at school on Valentine’s Day that they’d be in the U.S. on Feb. 21.”
Carol has had some rough times, too, and Leigh says Carol’s fidgety ring adjustments are always a good indicator that there’s conflict brewing inside of her bestie. The two are sisters, mother and daughter, best friends.
“I’ve tried to mentor her because I knew that she could take over and do anything that I did,” says Carol. “I always kind of felt as if she was my child.”