Nancy Warmbir worked six days a week at the beauty salon she opened on the Northwest Side, opening early and staying late to accommodate the women who counted on her for bouffants, bobs and beehives.
From the 1960s to the early 1980s, she handled haircuts, color, teases and perms, introducing her customers to trends like frosted tips.
She did most of the work herself, with an occasional assistant. After 20 years of standing on her feet at Nancy’s salon at 3451 N. Central Ave., she had to undergo arthroscopic surgery several times and eventually two knee replacements.
Mrs. Warmbir, 76, of Downers Grove, died Jan. 31 of complications from dementia.
Drive and talent helped her make a good life for her family after a lean childhood near downstate Manteno. “She talked about growing up eating lard sandwiches,” said her son, Steve Warmbir, director of digital and editorial innovation at the Chicago Sun-Times.
“She was dirt poor and not embarrassed to say it,” he said. “She went from that to running a thriving business on the Northwest Side of Chicago.”
Mrs. Warmbir molded herself into an expert cook and seamstress. In 1958, as a senior named Nancy McElwee, she won the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award at Kempton Community High School, moving on to the state competition. She worked on the school newspaper, served on student council, performed in class plays and was class treasurer and a cheerleader. A choral soloist, she won singing awards from the Illinois High School Association.
Both creative and a perfectionist, she said she learned a lesson about quality while watching her grandmother labor over a dress she was making.
“She noticed her grandma was spending a lot of time sewing the back,” her son said. “She said, ‘Grandma, why does it matter? Nobody sees it, nobody cares about the back of the dress.’ And she said, ‘I want to do it right. I know it’s right, and it matters to me.’ ”
After high school, she moved to Chicago, where she worked at salons and attended beauty school before opening her own business.
“She’d get up really early, at 3 or 4 a.m., to do things around the house,” her son said. “Then, the shop would open up, usually at 9 a.m. She would take customers late. She would work Saturdays.”
The salon was attached to the Warmbir home. When her son practiced piano, the patrons could hear him through a shared wall. They’d send back requests. “My mom really liked that,” he said. “She really loved music.”
Mrs. Warmbir learned how to talk to people from operating her business. “She was just a very friendly person,” he said. “As a beautician, you had to keep people happy.”
The beauty world had some ugliness. Sometimes, “City inspectors would come in and try to shake her down,” said her son.
Still, “She really liked helping people look good, put their best foot forward,” he said.
In her free time, she enjoyed walking over to the Belmont-Central shopping area, browsing at Goldblatt’s and Edward’s Jewelers.
In 1980, the family moved to Downers Grove. She thought she’d retire when she closed the salon, but, once settled in the suburbs, “She was always busy trying to do something,” her son said. Mrs. Warmbir went to work on a medical-parts assembly line. Her performance was so proficient, the company all but forced her to take a promotion.
At Christmas, she went through dozens of pounds of Land O’Lakes unsalted butter, baking thousands of Christmas cookies from chocolate chip to kolaczki, staggering production through careful cookie storage in the basement deep freezer. She packaged them prettily on doily-decorated platters and presented them as gifts. For years, the cookies were the favorites of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and sheriff’s deputies at Cook County and federal courthouses where her son worked as a reporter, as well as the Sun-Times and Daily Herald newsrooms.
“She would keep going and going, and the house would have these wonderful smells,” her son said.
Mrs. Warmbir sewed her own drapes. She did needlepoint and crafted dolls, painting their faces and sewing opulent outfits.
She spoiled her Lhaso Apso, Ming, a small dog with a big growl who protected her from pushy salesmen who tried to get their foot in the door.
Mrs. Warmbir made German chocolate cake for her husband, Terry. Relatives raved about her mashed potatoes, which never had lumps.
She liked listening to Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Tony Orlando. The family once enjoyed a lavish Chicago-area show by pianist Liberace with Vegas-style dancing fountains.
The Warmbirs enjoyed driving to the casinos of Las Vegas, stopping along the way at national parks, including the Grand Canyon. They visited most of the 50 states. Even after her dementia became more pronounced, the couple still enjoyed breakfast out at favorite diners in Downers Grove. Terry never stopped taking Nancy to get her hair done.
Mrs. Warmbir did not want a funeral service. She asked for her body to be donated to science. Memorial donations can be made to the Dementia Society of America. She is also survived by her son from a previous marriage, Terry Norris; a sister, Patricia Harris; two grandchildren, Ken Norris and Zoe Warmbir; and three great-grandchildren.