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Rolling up their sleeves

Life was flowing along pretty nicely five years ago for Grand Forks, N.D., residents Judith and Julian Stephens. In their early 50s at the time, they had a successful family business, an attractive home and useful, satisfying lives. They had hope...

Life was flowing along pretty nicely five years ago for Grand Forks, N.D., residents Judith and Julian Stephens.

In their early 50s at the time, they had a successful family business, an attractive home and useful, satisfying lives. They had hopes of selling the business and retiring early.

Then came the mid-April 1997 flood that ravaged Grand Forks. Both their home and business were inundated, their lives changed forever.

"We pretty much had to start over," Judith says.

Know this about Judith Stephens. She says what she thinks. And she has no use for self-pity.


"Yes, the flood was hard on us. But I don't want anyone thinking we feel sorry for ourselves. The flood was hard on so many other people, too. And there were positives that came out of it for us," she says.

If they wanted to, the couple would have plenty of negatives to dwell on.

Their home and business are gone, now owned by others. The business, formerly Hair Instructor's Academy, operates under the Josef's School of Hair Design banner.

Their two children, who worked with them in the business, left the state to find new job opportunities.

And the couple, who worked side-by-side for so many years, now spend their weekdays apart. Judith is executive assistant at a Grand Forks corporation. Julian operates Julian's Hair Replacement Studio in Fargo. He returns to the couple's condominium in Grand Forks on the weekends.

"That's the hardest part, being separated during the week after working so closely for so long," Julian says.

No flood insurance

The Stephenses moved to Grand Forks 30 years ago and soon became the owner-operators of Hair Designer's Academy there. Julian concentrated on teaching, Judith on the business side of the operation.


Through the years, the school trained hundreds of stylists, many of whom work in area salons, and its stylists-in-training cut the hair of thousands of area residents.

Former students speak highly of the couple.

"They're such wonderful people," says Sue Kraft, a Hair Designer's Academy graduate who now works for a Grand Forks salon. "Mr. Stephens is kind of quiet, gentle. Mrs. Stephens is full of energy and she never quits."

The couple operated the hair academy "with total professionalism. If you left there without the knowledge to succeed in the hair industry, it was your own fault. They did everything possible to give you the knowledge you needed," she says.

Kraft recalls how the couple helped young students from small towns adjust to adult life in Grand Forks.

"There were students from across the state, girls just out of high school, and Mr. and Mrs. Stephens were like parents to them," she says.

Judith says that people who haven't been involved in a family business will have trouble understanding the emotional and financial importance of Hair Designer's Academy to her and her family.

Because the business meant so much to them, they decided to restore it after it was inundated by the flood. Trouble was, they didn't have flood insurance. They'd wanted to take some out, but were persuaded not to.


"We were told, 'No need for it. If you get flooded there, the whole town would be flooded,' " she says. The school is on South Washington Avenue, well away from the Red River.

The couple don't talk publicly about the financial aspects of their former business and home.

"Let's just say we had everything tied up in the business," she says.

But without insurance, they had to pay the cost of rebuilding the school themselves. When they sold the school, roughly two years after the flood, the proceeds essentially covered the repair costs -- and very little more.

In short, they were starting from scratch financially.

Moving on

They began by moving from their former home into a smallish condominium "that had been trashed by some college students. It was in real bad shape, so bad I wouldn't even have agreed to live in it as a newlywed," Judith says.

So why move in there?


"It was the only place in Grand Forks that would agree to take Gizmo," the couple's now 14-year-old dog, she says.

She went to the work for the city of Grand Forks. "Going from being the employer for so many years to the employee -- that was a big change," she says.

For a time, Julian did concrete work for a Grand Forks contractor. "I'd cut hair for 40 years and there I was working concrete," he says.

But rather then feel sorry for themselves, they rolled up their sleeves to put their lives back together.

Julian, who enjoys working with wood, fixed up the now tastefully decorated condo.

Judith landed a job with her current employer, which lets her keep in touch with the Grand Forks business scene.

"I really believe in Grand Forks and its future, so this is a great position for me," she says.

After much consideration, Julian started his hair replacement business in Fargo last fall.


Why not Grand Forks?

"There are a lot more people in the Fargo-Moorhead area. It became a matter of going where the bodies are," he says.

His business here provides hair replacement products and services, primarily to men and chemotherapy patients. In a typical week he sees about 20 male clients and 15 to 20 chemo patients.

He's a modest man, but takes great pride in his ability to provides clients with hair replacements that most observers mistake for the real thing.

"There are men who aren't bothered by going bald. And that's fine. But hair is a big deal to some people, and it's satisfying to be able to help them," he says.

Julian anticipates operating his business for at least 10 more years.

"We need to build up a little retirement (money) so we'll have something in our 70s," he says. "Besides that, both Judith and I are the kind who need to stay busy and to work with people."

Like his wife, Julian says it's best to forget about the past and concentrate on the positives of today.


"I can't pretend that what happened after the flood wasn't difficult. It was," he says. "But we're moving on. And life is pretty good again."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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