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In her back-garden salon in Paraparaumu, Susan holds her Police award, for service from April 1981 to December 2019.

Keeping police in trim

It’s the end of a hairdressing era at the Police College. Susan Johnson, who has run a small hair salon at the college for nearly 40 years, has hung up her scissors and clippers and retired.

It’s the end of a hairdressing era at the Police College. Susan Johnson, who has run a small hair salon at the college for nearly 40 years, has hung up her scissors and clippers and retired.

Over nearly four decades, she has cut, trimmed and styled the heads of thousands of recruits, Police College staff and families, and police on courses at the college.

“I loved going to work at the college,” Susan says. “It’s been a very happy relationship, and a long journey that I’ve enjoyed.”

She trained as a hairdresser in Masterton in 1965, and went on to work at a couple of salons in Wellington.

In early 1981, she got an urgent call from someone she knew at the Police College, saying all the cadets (as they were known then) urgently needed haircuts for a parade for the college’s opening. Could she come and make them look smart, because the hairdresser they were going to employ hadn’t turned up?

Her skills were clearly appreciated, because shortly afterwards, in April, she was offered the contract to cut hair at the new college’s purpose-built salon. “It was mainly for the cadets, who had weekly parades and were living on the premises with no transport,” she says.

Initially, she did only one night a week, but over the years the hours grew until she was doing 3pm-7.30pm four nights a week. Previously she had only done women’s hairdressing, so she had to learn barbering. “I thought I could style men’s hair better than barbers.”

In the early days, the rules for male cadets’ hair were pretty strict – “above the ear and above the collar”, she remembers.

But she found she loved cutting short hair. And as the years passed, she was also cutting women’s hair, and upskilled to keep up with the fashions. “I can do all the modern styles,” she says. These days young men are very particular about their hairstyles, and if they brought in photos of a top sportsman, wanting her to copy their style, she’s been only too happy to do it. Beards are now also allowed, and need grooming too.

Her job at the college worked on a “locked gate” principle – no outsiders were allowed. Clients had to be college staff, or their families, or in Police. She charged half of what they would pay elsewhere.

She got on well with them all. “I had some very interesting clients, of all ages, with interesting life stories to tell.” And her clients were loyal – in some cases she’s cut the hair of three generations of the same family.

Her hair salon was good for the college, she believes, and handy for recruits and staff. And working at the college was good for her. Because it was part-time, she could fit her life and family and sport around it. Through part of her working life, she was also running a bridal shop, but in later years only worked at the college.

She felt part of the Police family, and that included her three children and 11 grandchildren too. When her children were young, she would pick them up after school and bring them with her to work. They could often be seen in the lounge at the college and were regular attendees at Police College Christmas parties.

Susan, who was widowed at age 43, pays tribute to her own “fantastic family” who have supported her over the years, and whom she can now spend more time with.

Her long relationship with the college ended on what she calls a slightly disappointing note. She learnt towards the end of last year that renovations at the college did not include a salon. So she decided to retire, but only a few months earlier than she intended.

Once a hairdresser, though, always a hairdresser. The scissors and clippers didn’t sit still for long. Susan has lived at Paraparaumu since the 1980s, and before the lockdown earlier this year, she took the opportunity to have a Nordic spruce kitset cabin, imported from Finland, built on her back lawn. Power was installed and she now has her own little home salon.

Since the lockdown lifted, a few Police College staff have been making the trip up to Kapiti for one of Susan’s haircuts. They’re clearly having trouble letting her go.

Part of the Police family

Detective Hadleigh White was saddened to learn that after eight years of getting his hair cut by Susan Johnson at the Police College, his cut booked for December 19, 2019, would be his last.

He says there were many flowers and cards outside the salon that last day, showing how much people appreciated having Susan and her salon right there at the college. “I’m sure there will be many people who were unable to say their last goodbye and thank you to Susan, simply because they didn’t know the salon was being shut down.”

Not only has she helped hundreds of people look sharp for their graduations, she has also been there for that quick trim or touch up during courses and study breaks, he says.

During one haircut, Susan showed how kind and accommodating she was when his daughter Sophia got upset waiting by the Munro Canteen for him. “Susan suggested we bring in a highchair so she could sit next to me while I had my hair cut. Given she already had limited work space, this was very kind of her and made Sophia very happy.

“She is a very caring and humble person who has been a part of most people’s Police College experience. She will always be a part of the wider Police family and will be dearly missed,” Hadleigh says.

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