ATWOOD — Dakota Johnson has always liked having long hair.
The Atwood-Hammond High School senior, who will turn 18 on May 20, first started growing out his dark brown locks in the third grade. His hair made it to his shoulders.
"Then my mom made me get a haircut," recalled Johnson, who said that cycle continued for a few more years.
When Johnson was in the eighth grade, his mother — Mary Johnson, Champaign schools' special education coordinator — agreed to let her son grow his hair out until he was ready to cut it off.
Around that time, she participated in a volleyball tournament to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. That prompted several conversations between mom and son about kids with cancer.
"Do boys with cancer get wigs from boys' hair?" he asked her.
"When he said that he'd like to grow his hair out and donate it, I told him as long as he kept it clean, I didn't have a problem with it," said Mary Johnson, who was touched by her son's compassion.
Now, after four years, Dakota Johnson will cut off most of his mane — close to 18 inches long — and donate it to Locks of Love. The nonprofit organization collects hair donations for wigs, which are donated to financially disadvantaged children in the United States and Canada who suffer from long-term hair loss due to any diagnosis.
"I'm just really proud of him," Mary Johnson said. "Dakota is very sarcastic, and he seems rough and tumble. But his moral compass has always been very defined. He has always stood up for kids who got picked on and defended the underdog."
Each year, Dakota Johnson's hair grew several inches.
His junior high science teacher, Tim Manselle, occasionally ribbed him: You need a haircut, Johnson.
I'd rather not, the teen would respond.
Teachers and friends jokingly called him Cousin Itt, and Johnson admits there have been times when he resembled the hairy "Addams Family" character.
"When I wake up, how it is is how it stays," he explained. "It looks tangled, but I don't mess with it. It hurts when you try to get them out."
Johnson first considered donating to Locks of Love at the suggestion of his hairdresser, Pam Bailey. Bailey, who has a home salon in Ivesdale, is also his mom's cousin.
"She said, 'You have really, nice thick hair,'" recalled Johnson, who shrugged off the idea at first.
But the more he started thinking about joining the military after high school, the more he considered making the unique donation.
"They're going to shave it off anyway," said Johnson, who has already signed papers to join the U.S. Army after his May 23 graduation. He plans to leave for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in September. "I might as well do something with it."
Mom is looking forward to the haircut, which will take place before Dakota's graduation ceremony.
"That was the deal," she said with a laugh.
She isn't the only one eager to see her son sporting a clean-cut look. After all of this time, he is, too.
"I'm really getting tired of it getting in my way," he said. "It's just hair. It grows back. I'm just hoping it goes to someone who needs it."