A long, bumpy road for a high school dropout

Three decades ago, Kathleen Walsh was on welfare, living above a convenience store with her two small children. Bars secured the apartment door as they lay in bed listening to the noises of neighbors carousing deep into the night.

”I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” recalls the owner of the Needham‘s P.K. Walsh, a salon that specializes in helping women with hair loss.

”Even though as a child our family grew up with very little, we did have a few things — pride being one of them.”

A vibrant and youthful 61-year-old with a big smile and an air of sophistication, Walsh recalls the bumpy road that has taken her from high school dropout to a business owner who is often asked to consult for start-ups.

Walsh left high school in Worcester after her junior year. Looking back, she wonders whether she had attention deficit disorder, because she had trouble focusing on her studies.

She worked briefly at a movie theater concession stand, then at a greeting card factory, where she put together photo albums on an assembly line. ”My name was always being called as my cards were crooked, or I’d miss them,” said Walsh. ”I lost that job.”

As if job woes weren’t enough, she began losing her hair as a result of a disorder called androgenetic alopecia. Thanks to the bouffant hairstyles of the 1960s, she was able to camouflage the loss.

With the help of one of her sisters, she landed a job in a clothing store credit department. ”Balancing out the books every day was a piece of cake for me,” said Walsh. She stayed on for three years, until her first child was born.

Three years later, after her second child was born, Walsh’s life began to read like a line from a Bruce Springsteen song: Her husband went out for a ride and he never came back.

The owner of the apartment building found out and asked her to leave. ”I don’t want a single woman living here,” she told Walsh.

That’s when Walsh landed on welfare and in the apartment over the convenience store. ”My son was bragging to one of his cousins that we had a big Coca-Cola sign right on our house,” she said. ”It was awful: He thought that was a good thing.”

Through the welfare office, Walsh got a job with a moving company and within a year was able move her family to a garden apartment. ”We felt like we were in a castle,” she said.

A few years later Walsh was recruited by Mayflower movers, where she started in dispatch and worked her way up to general manager and vice president of sales of the local office.

”In the summertime I would have to hide my kids in the back as I had to be at work at 7 a.m. and their camp bus didn’t pick them up until 8:30,” she said. Walsh told her children, ”Don’t dare make a peep.”

”I remember being in her office hiding and playing under the massive desk,” said daughter Nikki, now 35 and the office manager of P.K. Walsh. ”These were Teamster guys with interesting magazines in the bathroom.”

When the workers eventually discovered the early-morning visitors, they laughed and offered to help out. ”The guys would drive my kids to the YMCA camp in the 18-wheelers and pick them up every night,” said Walsh. ”My kids were the camp celebrities.”

To this day, ”Big George,” who drove them around as children, has attended every event in their lives: graduations, weddings, and celebrations of births.

In time Walsh sought a new challenge and decided to partner with her sister, Patricia, who was a barber. Inspired by a male friend who was undergoing chemotherapy and having trouble finding a wig, the sisters decided to start a hair replacement business, and P.K. Walsh was born.

Walsh noted the irony. ”I was always trying to hide the fact that I had a hair loss,” she said, ”and now I was about to go into a business that would reveal” her secret.

Today, many of Walsh’s clients are women suffering from the same disorder. Wigs for cancer patients gradually became a sideline as more hospitals began opening salons.

After growing out of spaces in Brookline and then Wellesley, the Southborough resident moved the business to Needham in 2004. Her sister has since retired, and now Walsh and her daughter run the 3,500-square-foot salon. It contains seven private rooms and a large area where customers can have their hairpieces wash, dried, and styled.

The salon offers hair extensions, additions, integrations, and a variety of pioneering treatments, including laser light therapy to curb loss.

Throughout her trials, Walsh remained committed to doing volunteer work. While at the trucking company, she helped spouses at a drug rehabilitation center. More recently she has helped women get off welfare through the Center for Women in Enterprise. ”Is that not the perfect place for me?” she said with a smile.

For more information, visit www.pkwalsh.com or call 800-624-4335.

Beasley on the sax

Walter Beasley said he became a musician to ”impress the ladies,” but it was music that captured his heart.

”I became more comfortable on the stage than I was around people,” Beasley said. ”My value as a human being became gauged by what I could do with a saxophone and with music.”

That’s been good for his career, if not always for his social life, said the 43-year-old Berklee College music professor.

The title track of his latest album, ”For Her,” hit the No. 5 spot on Billboard’s contemporary jazz charts and was made into a video. But his growing fame drove him out of town.

”I was living in Cambridge, and one night a neighbor knocked on my door with his friend at 2 a.m. to prove that I lived there. That’s when I decided to move to Southborough.”

The quiet town suits his lifestyle. He rises at 4 a.m. to have time to exercise and practice before heading into Boston to teach. He said he is in bed by 8 p.m.

The son of teachers, Beasley vowed he would never follow in their footsteps. He saw how their dedication left them drained by the end of the day, and he envied their students for having received so much of their attention.

He started taking trumpet lessons when he was 8 but decided he wasn’t very good. When he was 9, an aunt gave him a Grover Washington Jr. album.

”When I heard ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,’ I felt as if the words were coming out of the horn. That’s when I started playing the saxophone.”

Raised in El Centro, Calif., on the Mexican border, Beasley learned Spanish from his neighbors and friends. By age 13 he was singing in a band called Los Elegantes. At that time, Beasley said, ”it was a novelty having a black kid sing in Spanish.”

Beasley played in various bands throughout middle and high school, sometimes performing at clubs that he was too young to enter as a patron. But his most valuable preparation came from working in watermelon fields.

”Toughness, dedication, commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, and discipline were learned out in the 120-degree sun,” said Beasley. ”No matter what was going on in anyone’s personal life, everyone showed up in the morning. Everyone had to or it wouldn’t work.”

The workers would form a line across the field and toss the melons from man to man until they reached the truck. ”At the end of the summer, seven of the eight guys bought cars. I bought a saxophone,” said Beasley.

Beasley attended Berklee College of Music and released his first album in 1987. Since then he has become involved in the business side of the industry. He is CEO of Affable Records and Publishing, which has put out his instructional DVDs and pamphlets.

Now his students are benefiting from his four decades of experience.

”Having seen so much, and being part of the music industry, I like to present real-life scenarios in the classroom,” Beasley said. ”If you’re on the stage playing for 2,000 people and the amplifier blows out, what do you do?”

He knows the answer, because it happened to him three years ago in Washington, D.C. He sauntered into the crowd and kept on playing.

Walter Beasley joins a lineup that includes Paul Simon and Herbie Hancock in ”Three Score: The Berklee 60th Anniversary Concert” at the Wang Theatre Saturday. It will be hosted by Bill Cosby. For more information, visit www.wangcenter.org. Beasley’s website is www.walterbeasley.com.

Around the towns

John Rice of Newton has been named executive director of the Hyde Community Center in Newton Highlands. Rice is a founding member of the Brigham Community House and is a member of the Newton Childcare Commission. . . . Wayland Cub Scout Webelo Pack 88, led by Steve Correia, sent six boxes of warm children’s clothing to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. . . . Newton residents Bobbie Steinbach and Gerard Slattery are playing in ”A Prayer for Owen Meany” at the Stoneham Theatre through Jan. 29; call 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

Click here to see this article on Boston.com