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Syracuse Herald American, CNY: Life and leisure in Central New York. Sunday, January 17, 1999

Splitting Hairs, by Barbara Stith

Left or right, the way your part falls may reveal your true self.

John Walter is the first to admit it. He was a geek. Loved by few, shunned by many. The kid who felt more comfortable in chemistry class than the school dance. The kid who went off to college - in his case, to Oswego - and got good grades because he had a lot of time to study.

Go ahead, ask him his profession. It has geek written all over it: computer consultant.

"I've got a math and physics degree," Walter explains. "You don't really get one of those if your one of the cool kids. It doesn't happen."

But things turned out OK for Walter. He came to experience not merely acceptance but popularity. If history is kind, he might become as famous as Grace Bedell, the 11-year-old girl who suggested to Abraham Lincoln that he grow a beard.

If not, let it at least be recorded here that he originated the Hair Part Theory, a theory so compelling that once you learn about it, you'll no longer make eye contact with people but peek at the top of their head instead.

If things aren't going so well for you, you might even put the theory to work. You'll close the bathroom door - or maybe you won't, because it's unlikely anyone notices you anyway - and you'll dampen your hair, or maybe rub in some gel if you have a stubborn cowlick. You'll pull a comb in a straight line through your hair and flip it to one side - but not the side to which you usually comb it.

You'll change your part. And maybe, just maybe, you'll change your life.

That's what happened to John Walter.

Two decades ago, when he was 19, Walter had a series of photographs taken for an identification badge for his summer job. He looked at the pictures as if he were seeing himself for the first time.

"I just remember thinking, 'Why do these pictures look so odd?' " he says. "I looked at myself in the mirror that night and thought, 'I look fine.' "

Then it dawned on him. The photographs were a true image of himself. The reflection in the mirror was reversed. The photographs, not the mirror, showed how other people saw him.

Walter had parted his hair on the right since he was a kid. So he tried parting his hair on the left. It looked weird. But if he looked peculiar in the mirror, he reasoned, he probably looked just fine to everybody else.

He went to his new job Monday with his hair parted on the left. He joined a big, bruising Con Edison paint crew that might have looked upon torturing a geeky college kid as a pleasant diversion from painting a substation. But they liked Walter.

At night he went out. He started hanging out with the group of cool kids who'd rejected him in ninth grade. He had a great summer. Unaccustomed to having so many friends, Walter sat down and made a list of all the people he now knew at summer's end. There were 150 people on it.

"I felt like I'd broken through a barrier," says Walter, who grew up downstate and now lives in New York's East Village. "I combined my new image with a new attitude that matched. What was so amazing was that it was effortless."

The Hair Part Theory goes like this: A left hair part draws unconscious attention to the left side of the brain, which controls activities traditionally associated with masculinity. A right hair part draws unconscious attention to the right side of the brain, which controls activities traditionally associated with femininity.

The theory seems to apply more to men because they usually part their hair the same way their whole life. The theory also applies to women, but to a lesser degree, because women might change their hair styles many times.

A man who parts his hair on the right and wants acceptance in a traditionally male role is at risk, the theory goes, because he sends a mixed message when he emphasizes the right, or feminine, side of the brain.

A woman who parts her hair on the left and wants acceptance in a traditionally male role - business, for example, or politics - will be taken more seriously than a woman with a right part.

Walter's younger sister, Catherine, who has a degree in anthropology and pulls her curly hair straight back so she doesn't have a part, started working with her brother two years ago to research his theory.

"It's an interesting theory, but unless you have the data to back it up, anybody can say anything," she says. So she started looking at pictures of famous people - then looked for another picture of each of them, just in case a negative had been flopped. She concentrated on elected officials, looking at governors, senators and members of the House, at vice presidents and presidents through history.

All the photos led her to a single conclusion: Her brother was right.

Only 7 percent of presidents had a definite right part. Only 16 percent of the male governors in office as of last September had a definite right part. Only 13 percent of the male senators and 16.4 percent of representatives in the last session of Congress had right parts.

What do former House Speaker Richard Gephardt and his successor, Newt Gingrich, have in common? A left part. What do Gingrich and former Speaker-elect Robert Livingston and newly elected Speaker Dennis Hastert have in common? A left part.

What does Gingrich have in common with President Clinton? As you might have guessed, absolutely nothing. Clinton combs his hair back and doesn't wear a part, although he has from time to time shown a slight preference for a right part.

"Across the board, it's a very low percentage of male leaders with right hair parts," Catherine Walter says.

Men who part their hair on the left are regular guys, readily accepted. Consider this: Every member of the Central New York congressional delegation parts his hair on the left. George Pataki parts his hair on the left.

Roy Bernardi? Nick Pirro? On the left, both of them, at least as far as hair parts go. Her findings weren't limited to elected leaders. Of the 268 men listed as the best actors of all time, only 32 had a definite right part.

A peculiarly high number of fanatics parted their hair on the right: Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadzic, Jim Jones and the guy who led his cult in a mass suicide at the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet.

And the famous men who parted their hair on the right were so unique the defied comparison with one another: Edgar Allen Poe, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Howard Cosell, Ronald Reagan.

"We've had some people interested in doing their own study," Walter says. "It's fertile ground."

The theory fascinates Steven Zdatny, an associate professor of history at West Virginia University who has studied the social history of hair and was briefly famous when the Washington Post sought his opinion on Paula Jones' makeover.

"But would the serious research come out of the biology department, the anatomy department, the psychology department or the beauty schools?" Zdatny asks. "It doesn't sound like they're going to find many serious takers in the psychology departments. Probably a beauty school."

The heck with serious research. Get this: In the movie "Superman," Christopher Reeve wears his hair parted on the right when he's Clark Kent. When he's Superman, his hair is parted on the left.

"When Superman came out, he felt totally justified," Catherine Walter says of her brother.

When Walter returned to Oswego State the year he was 19, his popularity continued. A chorus of "Hey, howyadoin?" went up as he walked through the student union. He found it hard to concentrate on studying.

"You know how windy it is at Oswego?" he asks. "I'd walk across campus and the wind would blow in and I'd think, "Oh my God, is anybody seeing my hair blow this way?"

Walter did take time out from his socializing, however, to perform his civic duty. It was the spring of 1979, the era of malaise, and Jimmy Carter was president. A president, Walter couldn't help but noticing, who parted his hair on the right.

Walter sat down to compose a letter. He compared himself to the little girl who suggested Lincoln grow a beard. He suggested the president switch his part to the left.

He received in return a form letter, which made no mention of the hair part but was personally signed by an aide. Six weeks later, the news broke.

"It was April 1979," Walter says. "There were articles in all the papers. I think it was around April 17th."

Close enough. April 24, 1979. The Post-Standard printed side-by-side shots of President Carter, one showing his hair parted on the right, the other on the left. "The transformation, for which no explanation has been offered, came about during the president's 11-day Georgia vacation," the caption explained. Observers speculated the president was trying to cover a bald spot.

"We feel it's because John sent him the letter," Catherine Walter says, "but of course there's no proof of that."

OK, you're asking, are these people nuts? Do they have a book out? An info-mercial? Do they book hotel rooms in small cities across the country and conduct workshops for desperate people?

John Walter tried giving an absolutely straightforward presentation of his theory to his Toastmasters speaking group, and he had his audience in stitches in a matter of minutes. So people do think he's crazy?

"Oh, absolutely," he says in a good-natured way and laughs.

"It's silly," Catherine Walter acknowledges. "It's silly on one hand, but on the other hand it's not. It gives you additional information about how to present yourself."

The Walters are selling a product, but it's not designed, at least yet, for the mass market. It's the True Mirror, invented by John Walter, which shows people how they actually look to others as opposed to their reversed image in a mirror.

The custom-made True Mirrors ($195 for a small one, $295 for a large one) are sold to a clientele that includes psychologists, plastic surgeons, celebrities and executives who make a lot of presentations.

As for the Hair Part Theory, that's free to take and do with whatever you will.

"It's out there to help people, another small piece of information that can change how people perceive you," Catherine Walter says. "This is a major signal that nobody's ever talked about. It's very subtle, but it's right on top of our heads."

To the part of the matter: What does it all mean?

Here are the characteristics associated with different hair parts according to the Hair Part Theory espoused by John and Catherine Walter:

*Men with left part: A natural for men. Those who wear it are perceived as popular, successful, strong, traditional. Downside: Might be out of touch with their feminine side. Famous left-parters: John Wayne, Tom Brokaw, John F. Kennedy.

*Women with left part: Usually OK, especially for women who want to make it in business or politics. Those who wear it are perceived as intelligent, in charge, reliable. Downside: Might create difficulties with fulfilling traditionally feminine roles. Famous left-parters: Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Christine Todd Whitman.

*Men with right part: Usually unnatural for men. It might be unusual or eccentric, but it can work if the man is very confident or attractive or seeks acceptance in nontraditional male role. Famous right-parters: Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, Ronald Reagan

*Women with right part: A natural for women. Perceived as very feminine, gentle, caring. Downside: Might create problems of not being taken seriously. Famous right-parters: Martha Stewart, Jane Pauley, Geraldine Ferraro.

*No part, center part or bald: Perceived as balanced, trustworthy and wise. Downside: Can lack flair associated with other types.

For more information about the Walters" True Mirror Co., visit its Web site at www.truemirror.com.