The Neilson Beauty College in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX on Feb. 24, 2016. Founded in the 1920’s, the beauty college has trained generations of stylists and is currently operated by mother-and-daughter duo Yolanda and Catalyna Mendez.
Credit: Danny Fulgencio

Yolanda Mendez worked in food service at Presbyterian Hospital for years before learning to cut hair.

Her son, Manuel, has autism and he hated haircuts. The experience overwhelmed him, and he would cry and throw terrible tantrums. She had trouble finding any hair stylist willing to work with him.

So, like many thousands of Dallas women and men before her, she enrolled in cosmetology school at Neilson’s Beauty College at 416 W. Jefferson in 1995, figuring she would learn to cut her son’s hair and embark on a career as a hairstylist. But Mendez never left Nielson’s. Once she was licensed, she became an instructor there, and in 2002, she bought the place from its third owners, Betty Sue and Bob Birdwell.

Neilson’s originally opened in 1926 or 1929, sources vary on its exact origin story.

But for sure by 1938, its original owners, Lester and Lillian Neilson had renovated a space at 412 W. Jefferson, next door to the school’s current location. It had new equipment, space for 250 students and, notably, air conditioning.

The Neilsons were active in Oak Cliff society, members of the Oak Cliff Lion’s Club and the chamber of commerce. Lester Neilson was president of the Texas Association of Schools of Beauty Culture.

In 1951, they became real estate developers, constructing a $75,000 two-story building at 410-412 W. Jefferson. They signed a long-term lease to Babcock Bros. Auto Store, which took the ground floor. Neilson’s occupied the second floor. That building, between El Padrino Café and the new Neilson’s, now houses BBVA Compass bank.

In the 1960s, the school’s vice president and style director was E. Henri, owner of Hollywood Beauty Salon at 1613 Elm. Henri traveled to national conferences every year and would bring to Dallas all the trending hairstyles. He often was described as “nationally known” in newspaper stories of the time.

In 1964, the Neilsons sold their school to two former Neiman Marcus hairdressers, E.C. Gunn and Marland Bobbitt.

They then sold it to the Birdwells in 1972. Neilson’s moved next door, to a former Goodyear tire shop, and Mendez now owns the school as well as the building.

Neilson’s is not just a school, it’s a working hair salon, where haircuts cost $5-$6 and a dye job is around $15.

Consuelo Salinas of La Bajada has been coming to Neilson’s for about 35 years. When owner Yolanda Mendez was still a student at Neilson’s, she formulated the hair color that Salinas still uses.

In more than three decades of cut and color, Salinas says, she’s never had a complaint.

“The service is the same [as a salon], and sometimes it’s better because they are students, and they’re trying to do the best they can,” she says.

Mendez’s daughter, Catalyna Mendez, manages the school. Neilson’s has provided them a comfortable life, and they get to witness other women pulling themselves up through education and careers.

Manuel, now 26, still gets his haircut at Neilson’s, and so do many of the other members of his day habilitation program.

“We teach our students to deal with those clients,” Yolanda Mendez says. “They take longer. You have to be patient.”