Beautician to close longtime Moorhead beauty school

MOORHEAD - Rita Dickelman has spent the past three and a half decades swatting away one version or another of the same none-too-flattering assessment of her profession: "It's just cutting hair."...

Rita Dickelman
Rita Dickelman, owner of Ingenue Beauty School in Moorhead, is retiring and is getting ready to close the school after 35 years of business. Dave Wallis / The Forum

MOORHEAD - Rita Dickelman has spent the past three and a half decades swatting away one version or another of the same none-too-flattering assessment of her profession: "It's just cutting hair."

She's worked at Ingenue Beauty School (for many years as Rita's Moorhead Beauty College) since 1976 and has run the place since 1977.

Barring a last-minute buyer, she's set to close next month, slowed by the economy, a handful of family health concerns, and the grind of paperwork.

She's helped launch the careers of thousands of students who have come through her doors. And, as she tells it, it's a mistake to pigeonhole her 35-year run as a story of "just" anything.

A story of providence


It is, in part, a story of providence, sparked by an opportunity Dickelman ascribes to divine intervention. The Barnesville native was 25 at the time and living with her sister in St. Paul. Her brother-in-law was a minister-in-training, and Dickelman was attending a beauty school owned by one of his parishioners.

One day, the parishioner approached her with an offer. "Rita," he asked, "how would you like to own your own school?" He had a branch in Moorhead he was looking to sell. She agreed to work there for a year and then take over.

She'd hardly set foot in the school before the day she started working there but felt like she'd been handed a prime chance to pursue her love of teaching (she started an education program at Minnesota State University Moorhead but didn't finish) and her love of hairstyling.

"I feel very, very firm that the man upstairs - that I have had my path given to me, handed to me, and I've run with it," she said.

On July 1, 1977, she took over as owner. It was her birthday, and she figured it was the best present she could get.

Dickelman has seen the last 35 years of pop culture play out on the tops of her clients' heads, from Farrah Fawcett's shag to Princess Diana's pageboy to Jennifer Aniston's Rachel. They come, they go, and sometimes they come back.

"I always tell my students, 'Learn it, because you're going to need it one day,' " she said. "New fads, new fashions, they all come in circles."

That's one of the reasons beauty school is a lot more work than some people might think: Minnesota licensing guidelines alone, she says, require expertise on 300 styles and 54 perms. Continuing education and a constant eye for what's new are a must, she said.


"One of the nice things about this profession is you should never get bored with it, because it's constantly changing," she said.

It is at some points a comedy in the classic sense of the term - awash in proms, weddings and celebrations - and at others a tragedy.

"We see people at their lowest moments; we see people at their highest highs," she said. "We see people at all walks of life, all the things they do. We starting cutting their hair when you're young getting school cuts, and we also do the hair when a person dies."

Much like a doctor needs a bedside manner, Dickelman says, a stylist needs a warm personality. It's no coincidence, she says, that hers is one of just a few professions in which one has license to touch. Some clients come in crying. Some want to talk.

Years ago, a woman came in after a long stay in the hospital. She didn't look good, but she wanted her hair done. Days later, she passed away.

"She knew she was dying," Dickelman said, "but she wanted to look good."

A story of family

It is, in part, a story of family. Dickelman's two instructors, Pasty Strom and Bonnie Ringstad, have been teaching at the school for 25 and 31 years, respectively. People tell them they act like sisters. Apart, they're a little shy talking about the school; put them together, and they can't stop laughing.


They're still coming to grips with the impending closure. Just ask about

how it feels, said Ringstad, "and you're going to have a gusher."

Neither of them know what they're going to do next. Strom's daughter

has her own salon in Barnesville and wants to work with her mother. Strom, who successfully urged her daughter to go to a different beauty school because she didn't think she could handle teaching her, isn't sure she's ready for that.

They joke about taking time off to go on a tour of all the salons opened around the region by former students.

Those students, too, are part of the family - "my girls," as Dickelman calls them. She figures her own children are boys because "God gave me enough girls."

Her students are predominately women, but a few men do come through now and then.

She's taught mothers and daughters in succession - and sometimes mothers and daughters at once. They call for advice. They stop by to say hello.


And they write. "I wanted to go to school for cosmetology ever since I was 11 years old," reads one thank-you card.

"I'll never forget you, so don't forget me," reads another.

One keeps it short and sweet: "The three of you will forever be in my heart."

End of the journey

The end of the road for Rita's Moorhead Beauty College is now near. At 60, the grind is getting to Rita. The paperwork, especially pertaining to student loans, is overwhelming - enough so that it's pulling her away from teaching.

"It's too much, and I don't want to make a mistake," she said.

She's had other offers for the school through the years, "but I wasn't ready," she said. "I have had times in those 35 years when I haven't known if I was going to survive or not. Somehow, through the grace of God, I did."

In 2005, she moved to her current location at 1024 Center Avenue and changed the named from Rita's to Ingenue.


In 2009 - "a real tumultuous year," as she describes it, health scares from family members and a down economy led her to take stock of her situation. Now, she's decided it's time to go. If someone wants to buy the school, she says she'd be happy to work for them; otherwise, she's getting ready for a grand farewell.

The week of May 9, the school will be open for student and client appreciation.

"I would like them to come and see me and say goodbye," she said.

She's already packed away a few things in her office but still hasn't taken down a few family photos, including one of her son - an Air Force serviceman - getting worked over with a comb by her grandson. Next to it is a photo of the same grandson taking a turn on his father with the clippers.

"I keep thinking that maybe my grandson's going to follow in my footsteps," she jokes. But of her son - who sports a buzz cut in keeping his military dress code - she adds: "I like him better with hair."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

Rita Dickelman
The Ingenue location at 1024 Center Ave., Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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