In her mid-40s, while raising two daughters, Elsie Damus of Uniondale one day announced she would open a beauty supply store in her hometown.
“My father was like, ‘Beauty supply? What do we know about that?’ ” Damus’ daughter Claudy Damus-Makelele of Merrick said.
” ‘Nothing,’ ” her mother told her father. ” ‘But we’re going to figure it out.’ “
Figure it out she did.
The store — Claudy’s Beauty Supply, named for Damus’ daughter — thrived for 36 years, selling both to corporate clients and local residents, her family said.
But Damus, who died June 20 at age 80, spent the final year of her life trying to save the business, her daughter said. The coronavirus pandemic forced the store to close for four months, clients canceled contracts and business dropped by 80%, the family said. Damus, who was briefly hospitalized with COVID-19, reluctantly was unable to fund three annual high school scholarships.
The store’s plight was profiled in a May 20 Newsday story about the challenges facing minority-owned businesses during the pandemic.
Damus died from pulmonary problems at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow. Two of the nurses who tended to her had received scholarships endowed by Damus when they graduated from Uniondale High School, her daughter said.
In the Newsday story, Damus and her family said they were told they didn’t qualify for federal financial assistance as a minority-owned business, even though Damus was a Haitian immigrant.
Damus-Makelele said Thursday she was not sure the business would survive.
“So many people reached out, but to no avail,” Damus-Makelele said. “We’re still behind in our payments and still behind in everything.”
Damus-Makelele and her sister, Nancy Nemorin of Merrick, are running the store while holding down other full-time jobs. Damus-Makelele is associate superintendent of Eastern Suffolk BOCES; Nemorin is a professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.
Uniondale Chamber of Commerce president Mariano Ugalde said Damus “was a very well-beloved figure in the neighborhood. … I can’t tell you how big a loss this is for Uniondale.”
Damus came to the United States from Haiti when she was 16, her family said. She graduated in 1975 from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, then worked as a fashion designer for a Manhattan clothing company.
“She then decided, ‘I don’t know anything about the beauty supply business, but I’m going to open a beauty supply business,'” Damus-Makelele said.
In addition to her two daughters, Damus is survived by her husband, Claude, five sisters and three grandchildren.
A funeral service was held on June 26 at Hartnett Funeral Home in Uniondale. She was buried that day at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale.
Days before Damus died, her daughters found a note from her that said in part, “Remember, for me my customers were always number 1.”
“She actually prepared my sister and I for this very moment our entire lives. She modeled for me what it meant to be a good wife. She definitely modeled for me dignity and grace,” Damus-Makelele said. “She’s going to live on in her customers [and] in her young people. That I know for sure.”