- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - The canvas bag is packed and ready to go, tucked away behind a sofa in an immaculate living room dotted with family photos, artwork and memoirs of a life well lived. When the call comes in, Verla Jean Zielke gathers her bag of tools - combs, curling irons, brushes - and heads out the door, ready to provide a service to a family in need.

For most of her life, Verla Jean cut, washed and styled hair for thousands of people in the Hermiston community. Now retired, she only styles hair when she is asked to by her lone employer: Burns Mortuary of Hermiston.

Now 90, Verla Jean continues to pass on her skills to families in grief, reported the East Oregonian (https://bit.ly/2915nMK).

“As long as they call me, I will go,” Verla Jean said. “As long as I can please the people, I’ll keep doing it. That’s all that matters.”

Verla Jean radiates a soft energy. Her smile is infectious, and the skill of her hands is undeniable. Originally from Wallowa, Verla Jean came to Hermiston in 1952 when her husband, Fred, took over the industrial arts program for Hermiston schools. While Fred kept busy in education and around the house, Verla Jean set up shop as a beautician, eventually converting the garage of their home into a beauty shop.

Four years after she moved to Hermiston - and 60 years ago this May - a neighbor asked Verla Jean for a favor. The neighbor’s daughter had cancer, and when the mother asked Verla Jean to help with the girl’s hair, she agreed. When the daughter died, Verla Jean received a phone call that would become the first of many: Joe Burns told her the family had requested that Verla Jean do the hair for the funeral.

“I’ve always felt that if I was needed, I can do it,” Verla Jean said, tearing up. “This is what God has given me, so I feel I should use it.”

Over 60 years, Verla Jean’s work has preceded more than 100 funerals.

Ken Huber, of Burns Mortuary, said having Zielke in the community is a blessing.

“A vital part of helping the family in their grief and recovery is to see that everything is just the way Mom would like it,” he said. “I have had so many families that were discussing how to do Mom’s hair and then felt at ease once they found out Verla Jean was still doing it. Literally thousands of families have been touched by Verla Jean’s years of expertise.”

Verla Jean understands loss all too well. She provided the last hair styling for her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and many friends over the years. For the beautician, the experience is a service, a final gift to a family lost in grief.

“I do this to help people face a difficult time losing someone special to them,” she said. “If I can please the family, then that’s my goal.”

But Verla Jean does ask for something from the family - a photo of their loved one. She uses her experience and her bag of tools to re-create the hair style and, occasionally, manicure, the family would like. Each sitting takes between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the length of the hair and the complexity of the style. Zielke pretends the person is sleeping. She works quickly and quietly so as not to disturb them.

Over the years, she has served men, women and even teenagers.

“The difficult ones are the teenagers and the young people,” she said.

Fred passed away in 2013, but Verla Jean continues to live life fully. She makes greeting cards, she paints, she embroiders. She loves to spend time in her garden and with her Dachshund, Scooter. She makes a personalized, hand-made ornament for each of her grandchildren every Christmas - and she has more than 20 grandchildren and almost as many great-grandchildren.

Zielke keeps herself busy, but she always has time when the mortuary calls.

“If they still need me, I’m available,” she said.

She passed on her beautician skills to a daughter and a granddaughter; her other descendants work in different fields from home health to teaching. All have taken on roles of service, much like their mother and grandmother.

“Her heart is in it for the right reasons - to help families,” Huber said. “We don’t even talk about retirement. We have been blessed.”


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.com



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