- September 3, 2021
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When Janine Weller got a text from someone claiming to be local hairstylist Jeff Hartwell asking her out to dinner in January 2019, she thought it was a joke.
They were both single parents and had met in 2016 when Weller’s son started getting his hair cut at Salon Hartwell. They got along so well that Weller had a running joke with her son and another hairstylist that Hartwell was her boyfriend.
“Hey Brock, did you get me a date with Jeff for my birthday?” she would ask her son jokingly.
When the text from an unknown number came through, she assumed it was her son and friend pretending to be Hartwell. She went along with it and suggested meeting at a taco place.
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“I was so shocked when it was him,” she said. “We had so much fun and honestly we were never apart after that.”
Upon discovering that Weller was a Leo, Hartwell told her Leos were his Kryptonite.
“Does that mean you’re Superman?” she asked.
She entered his contact as “Superman” in her phone, a nickname that has stuck since their very first date, lasting through family vacations with their three children, late night dances in the kitchen, till death did they part and beyond.
Hartwell had proposed to Weller on Aug. 4, 2020, her birthday. They had plans to elope in Ireland with only their children but faced delays between COVID-19 travel restrictions, storms and injuries.
The couple finally got married on Captiva Island near Fort Myers on July 7 after driving through Hurricane Elsa. They crossed the bridge just 45 minutes before it was closed and woke up to no electricity the next morning.
Not only did Jeff and Janine Hartwell drive through the storm to marry each other, but they said vows to their children — Janine’s son Brock and Jeff’s children Blake and Jade — too, wedding the families together.
Less than a month later, on Aug. 4, 2021, again Janine’s birthday, Jeff Hartwell died at the age of 57. The cause was complicated pneumonia.
Though their marriage was cut short, Janine wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve never actually met somebody who completed my soul and my life, and honestly, I would marry him ten times again no matter what the outcome was,” she said.
While much of Ocala will remember Hartwell as a hairstylist of over 35 years and owner of Salon Hartwell, Janine and close friends also remember him as a family man, animal lover and positive person.
Jeffrey Duane Hartwell was born in Winter Park, Florida, on April 5, 1964. His family moved to Ocala when he was young, and he graduated from North Marion High School in 1982.
After high school, he and a group of friends decide to join the Marines.
“Jeff was always the wild child in the group, and I think he thought it would give him discipline and direction,” Janine said. “At that point, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do.”
Hartwell’s lifelong friend Tom Welch, with whom he joined the military, said he was “always faithful” — as the Marine Corps motto “semper fidelis” means — to family, friends and career.
“Jeff and I grew up together, went through school, joined the Marines and served together, started flying at the same time and so much more,” Welch wrote to the Star-Banner. “Jeff is a member of the family. My parents and siblings and kids love the man. Jeff would join family vacations, went shooting with us, snow and water skiing, car racing, girl chasing and even worked beside us on the farm.”
Hartwell returned to Ocala after his time in the military and worked in a few different industries, including welding, before deciding to become a hairstylist. He studied in the cosmetology school at the Central Florida Community College, now the College of Central Florida.
“When Jeff told us he wanted to become a hairdresser I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Welch wrote, noting Hartwell’s artistic flair. “He became the premier salon in Ocala and Jeff even traveled the country performing at hair shows.”
Hartwell did hair shows for the company Big Sexy Hair in its beginning, his wife added. Though she’s sure he had his fair share of grief as a young Marine turned hairstylist and was teased that he was doing it to meet girls, Janine and Hartwell’s clients and co-workers say he was naturally talented as a stylist.
“He cut my hair, my mother’s, father’s, uncle’s and the majority of my family’s hair throughout my life,” said Welch’s daughter, Kelly Welch McAtee. “He was a part of almost every life event, from doing my hair for my senior pictures to my wedding and my children’s birthday parties.”
Welch McAtee also called Hartwell the life of the party, lighting up rooms with his positivity and memorable laugh.
“He is one of my mentors and working with him was a pleasure,” hairstylist Ammi Leon wrote about Hartwell. “Jeff is a family guy, with a passion for his work and clients. … This was unexpected and heartbreaking, but I know heaven has an amazing hairdresser.”
At Salon Hartwell, located in southwest Ocala off Easy Street, his co-workers say work is quiet without Hartwell’s memorable, infectious laugh or his cranking up the radio on Friday afternoons to wake everyone up.
“The people next door said it’s so much quieter over there because they could hear him laughing through the walls,” hairstylist Tina Allen, who worked with Hartwell for four years, said on Wednesday.
“When he laughed, you knew it was genuine,” Bess Knoblock, a co-worker of seven years, added. “You wanted to know what they were laughing about on the other side of the wall.”
Many of the nine hairstylists working at the salon echoed that Hartwell was always happy and full of energy.
“He was a very positive person,” Knoblock said. “Me and him would open because we were the early birds, and he would always open and say, ‘It’s going to be a beautiful day.’ “
Kelly McGinnis, who worked with Hartwell on and off for over 30 years, compared him to “a movie star when it came to hairdressing in Ocala,” noting multiple salons he worked at or owned over the years.
“He was just so full of energy,” she said. “He’d be here in the morning when you walked in, and he would be the last one leaving at night still with just as much energy.”
She added that Hartwell made everyone feel special in the salon chair as if they were his only client.
“A lot of his customers said he was not just a hairstylist, but he was a friend,” said Yeon Sammons, a co-worker since 2010. “He had a personal touch to every individual.”
And he could “blow dry like nobody’s business,” Allen said.
Colleen House, a friend of Hartwell’s and co-worker on and off since 1994, remembers Hartwell as a mentor and brother who she went through good and bad times with.
“He has grown since 1994. I would say that he was living his best life right now. Everything was where it needed to be,” she said, referring to his children, recent marriage and the salon, which was “his baby.”
House says his loss has left a huge void in the community.
“Even though he’s gone here at the salon, it feels like he could be walking in at any moment,” Allen said.
While Hartwell is remembered by many more clients for all the years they sat in the salon chair and shared stories, he also had a love for animals and enjoyed other hobbies, including flying planes, shooting and occasional horseback riding.
“Both of us loved having the kids and doing stuff as a family,” Janine Hartwell said of their blended family. “Every year, we go see something we’ve never seen and do something we’ve never done, try something we’ve never tried.”
This family tradition, started by Janine and her son, and other vacations over the past two and a half years took them jet skiing, parasailing, mountain biking, ziplining, white water rafting, hiking, sky diving and on trips to the amusement park and aquarium.
“He was game for just about anything, and that’s what made him so very special,” Hartwell said of her husband. She and the three kids will continue the tradition each year.
In addition to the family dog and a cat who loved sleeping on Hartwell’s lap, he loved meeting his veterinarian wife’s clients and even fostered a baby squirrel.
“Every animal loves Jeff,” Hartwell said. “He’s not a cat person, but my cat would sleep on him every night. He couldn’t sit down at the couch, the table or the bed without her sleeping on him.”
As for the squirrel, Jeff Hartwell had been cleaning the vines off of the trees at their home when a hairless baby squirrel fell out of the tree and landed on the dirt. A friend told him the mom would come get the baby, but when Hartwell’s wife found out 18 hours later about the incident, she decided it was time to intervene.
The couple named the baby “18,” ordered special squirrel food, bottle-fed him every two hours around the clock and made him a home in their screened-in patio before releasing him.
“He was a good dad, even to the squirrels,” Hartwell said.
That’s because in addition to parenting 18, Hartwell became a father to Janine’s son Brock, who had admired him even before the couple began dating. Hartwell even attended a father-son event at Brock’s school in eighth grade.
“My son never experienced a father figure like Jeff,” Hartwell said. “He’s never seen a man love his mom ever, and now he has. He knows what that looks like. He knows what it feels like to be accepted by a father figure. He knows what it feels like to have somebody make him feel loved and safe.”
Hartwell says her husband had a big heart and was a phenomenal dad and human being.
“His spirit and his soul and his essence, that’s what made him so special,” she said. “He was just born with that creative spirit. He was a people person. People were always drawn to him no matter where we went. He just had that energy that people wanted to be near. He was kind, and he was happy.”
He had strength, confidence and determination but also warmth, she added.
Many of his friends, like Welch, considered him family.
“Anything that he set his mind to do, he did. From a diesel mechanic to a hairdresser, he was one of those people that touched your heart,” Jeff Stone wrote to the Star-Banner, calling Hartwell a brother. “He was the best friend a guy could ever have. I will miss his smile and that amazing laugh. I will never forget him.”
To Janine, Hartwell will be remembered as her soulmate, her Superman, her dance partner.
One of their favorite dates, she recalled, was teaching Hartwell how to make lasagna. Between all of the dancing in the kitchen they did, it took six hours. Hartwell’s promise to her was that they would hold each other and dance for 40 years, even if it meant standing with walkers and swaying in the kitchen into their 90s.
“I’ve never met someone as matched to my heart and my soul as this man, and it was really nice. It was the first time in 20 years I felt like I was home,” Hartwell said.
She is blessed to have had Hartwell in her life and says nothing can take away how they feel about each other or the role model he was to their children.
“I’ll get to dance with him again,” she said. “My mom’s got him right now dancing — I’m sure of it. She’ll keep his feet limber until I get there.”
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at email@example.com.