Ex-Hairdresser Lois Dabney-Smith, Now a Top Therapist, Helps Her Clients Brush Out Life's Snarls

updated 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1988 01:00AM

If you're Ivana Trump and you've got a personal problem—well, you've got no problem: There are plenty of people you can hire to help. But if you're a waitress or a factory worker or a struggling single parent, the paycheck probably doesn't stretch far enough to cover the cost of a shrink. So you take your troubles to a minister, a bartender—or a hairdresser. If you're lucky, the hairdresser is somebody like Lois Dabney-Smith.

In 1957 Dabney-Smith, then a 22-year-old mother of twins Marleen and Maureen, 3, and James Jr., 1, decided to go back to work. Her husband, Jimmy, a construction worker, had fixed up a small room with a shampoo bowl in the back of their modest Pittsburgh house, and Dabney-Smith had some cards printed for Lois' Beauty Shoppe, engraved with the slogan We Need Your Head in Our Business. Says Lois: "All I wanted was to be the very best hairdresser, running the very best beauty shop for the rest of my life." But things didn't work out that way. Today Dabney-Smith, 53, commands a fee of $100 an hour and in March was named one of the country's outstanding psychotherapists in a nationwide poll of 1,500 of her peers.

In Lois' view, the career move was perfectly logical. The women who showed up at her beauty shop told her about husbands and boyfriends who drank too much or who couldn't hold jobs. Sometimes the confessions were frightening—stories of beatings and abuse—and yet many of her customers told them with self-deprecating laughter. "Even then I knew, instinctively I guess, that the laughter was covering up how they really felt," she says. "I listened and tried to help."

Her own story is not an unhappy one. Though her father, a steelworker-turned-real-estate-investor, and mother had divorced when she was 12, she says, "I don't recall any fights or acrimony." Lois' marriage to Jimmy Smith before she finished high school beat the odds by proving stable and lasting. As she raised their children and made a success of her home beauty shop, Lois began to realize that, with training, she could help people like her hairdressing customers.

In 1968 at age 33, Dabney-Smith enrolled full-time at the University of Pittsburgh. "I worried about how I would write all the papers, take the tests, care for the family and do my customers' hair," she says. "Of course, I found ways, with the family's help."

"Mom always pointed to her diplomas and told us they belonged to all of us," says Marleen, now 34, who heads a hospital lab. "That made me proud." Husband Jimmy, a city sanitation worker for the past 25 years, never balked at his wife's desire for a career that would overshadow his own. "I'm not a book person, Lois is," he says simply. Adds Lois: "Both of us know what we like and want to do. And Jimmy knows my commitment to him is strong. He was my first love. He knows I always wanted to be with him."

As Dabney-Smith earned a B.A., then a master's degree in psychology, she found growing satisfaction in being able to counsel her beauty-shop customers during the appointments she scheduled around her studies. "It felt great to give real help," she says. "I now knew enough to refer them to things like AA and family counseling." It was not until 1978, when a psychotherapist persuaded her to take on some of his individual counseling sessions, that Dabney-Smith decided to study for her Ph.D. and put down her comb for good. "It was hard to do," she admits. "We had a little party, and Jimmy took apart the shop. But most of my customers were glad for me. They wished me well."

Dabney-Smith returned the feeling. In 1980 she was awarded her doctorate and, partly because of the women she had come to know in the beauty shop, decided to specialize in the treatment of addiction. She is a nationally recognized authority on intervention—a last-ditch technique for having family, friends and employers directly confront the alcoholic or drug addict. She also has advised the Mayor of Pittsburgh on public safety issues and is a consultant to Alcoa and Mellon Bank.

"I can't remember a time when I ever thought I couldn't do what I wanted to do," Dabney-Smith tells those who find her achievement extraordinary. "That's one reason I work for myself. I set my own limits—none!" Her self-confidence may be contagious. Says one admiring patient: "When she asks me what I want to do, I tell her, 'Lois, you are my goal!' "

—By Michael Neill, with Jane Beckwith in Pittsburgh

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