Even as a girl, Raelyn Mertz wanted to help others look their best.
She had a flair for creativity and excelled in her school art classes. At home on her family's farm in Windsor Township in Berks County, she spent her leisure time teasing friends' tresses into the high bouffants and beehives popular in the early 1960s.
The idea of becoming a cosmetologist appealed to the young Mertz, now 76, but for the country girl from Edenburg, a little village near Hamburg, it seemed out of reach. That was until an essay contest led her to beauty school and a longtime career.
“I’m doing hair 57 years already,” she said. “And I have no plans to quit.”
The second youngest of 12 children born to Calvin and Naomi Mengel, Mertz was one of only three in her family to attend and graduate from high school — an accomplishment in itself. She hardly dared dream of continuing her education at a career school.
"How would I afford it?” she wondered, thinking, “I’ll probably marry a farmer, settle down and start a family.”
She did that, too, but not before a high school guidance counselor told Mertz of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the former Bryland Institute of Beauty Culture at 910 Penn St. The Reading Jaycees Wives were sponsoring two scholarships to the beauty school, she learned. Mertz just had to win an essay contest themed “Why Cosmetology” to get one.
“I want to be a cosmetologist in order to learn how to make women look beautiful,” Mertz, then known as Raelyn Mengel, a Hamburg High School senior, wrote in her essay. “A girl can dress nicely, but if her makeup is not applied properly and her hair not fixed in a becoming manner, the dress will not give her a neat appearance.”
The career’s variety and the chance to meet new people appealed to her, Mertz wrote, even though she knew there would be long hours of standing with pressure on her feet and sometimes-difficult customers toward whom she would have to remain courteous.
There was another consideration important to her, too.
“I can set up a shop in my own home,” she wrote, “and continue my work long after I am married and have a family.”
Her essay was one of two selected as winners by the judges. The announcement came in March 1963, and the next month, Mertz and fellow winner Carol Gernert, a Reading High School senior, were honored during a dinner at Stokesay Castle.
After graduating from high school a few weeks later, Mertz married her sweetheart, John Mertz of Kutztown, and enrolled at Bryland. It took her six months to complete the course, at first attending part time in the evening and later studying full time during the day.
After earning her license, she worked two years for another stylist, then opened her own shop. She has operated it in her Kutztown home for 55 years.
“I don’t want to advertise for more clients,” she said, noting she is content serving her longtime regulars.
She and John, 76, a retired farmer, also own a lawn care business.
Married 57 years, the couple have two daughters and five grandchildren.
Raelyn Mertz also works seasonally in the gift shop at Lenhart’s Tree Farm, Rockland Township, where she further exercises her creativity by making garlands and wreaths.
The coronavirus forced her to temporarily shut down her beauty salon, she said, but she has reopened with strict protocols for seeing only one client at a time and disinfecting and sanitizing the shop.
Hers is a busy life, but she likes it that way and has no thoughts of slowing down.
“I’m not planning on retiring,” she said. “I am still in good shape.”