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William ‘Sonny’ Lea, 83, iconic Atlantic City barber who mentored children

Though known for his barber shop, Mr. Lea was far more than a barber. He went out of his way to help children, a friend said.

William, known as Sonny, Lea beside the historical marker that was created to honor him in 2013.
William, known as Sonny, Lea beside the historical marker that was created to honor him in 2013.Read moreCourtesy Atlantic City Free Public Library

William C. Lea, 83, an iconic Atlantic City barber who was a mentor and champion for the city's children, died Monday, Oct. 15, after a car accident in Williamstown, Gloucester County.

Mr. Lea's 2004 Lexus was rear-ended around 1:30 p.m. while parked on the shoulder of Route 322, Monroe Township police said. The impact from the striking vehicle, a 2016 Chevrolet Colorado, pushed the Lexus into some woods, they said. Mr. Lea was extricated from the car and stabilized, before being airlifted to Cooper Hospital, where he died that evening. The accident is under investigation.

The Gloucester County Medical Examiner's Office said that the manner of Mr. Lea's death was accidental and that the cause of death was listed as pending until further testing is done.

For the better part of the 20th century, Mr. Lea worked from a series of three barbershops on Kentucky Avenue in a neighborhood that was the center of community activity and nightlife for the city's African Americans, according to a biography released when he was honored with a historical marker in December 2013.

Known as "Sonny," he worked for the Little New York Barbershop and then Grace's Little Belmont Hair Salon before opening his own shop — Sonny's Hair Salon — in 1975. It was there that he came into his own as a force for public good.

"Sonny's Barbershop has been the training ground for a new generation of barbers in Atlantic City, many of whom have started their own shops," said the historical marker at the southeast corner of Arctic and Kentucky Avenues.

"More importantly, over the years, Sonny has mentored countless young people and sponsored a plethora of community events," the marker said.

Michael Epps, a lawyer and close friend, said Mr. Lea stood out as "an icon and a local Atlantic City figure — far more than a barber."

"At no cost to any child, he would rent vans and take the children to basketball games. He was a pillar from the service standpoint," Epps said. "He was the definition of the word unselfish. He went out of his way to be good to young people. He was a rock in our community."

Born in Caswell County, N.C., and raised in Danville, Va., Mr. Lea moved to Atlantic City in 1960 after serving in the Air Force. He was a busboy at Child's Restaurant and the Knife & Fork Inn, and a bellhop and doorman at the Empress and Mayflower Hotels, before deciding to become a barber.

During his time at Grace's Little Belmont Hair Salon, he cut the hair of celebrities who frequented Club Harlem, a nightclub across the street from the salon, according to the biography. Among the notables were comedian Slappy White, blues great B.B. King, and boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

In his own barbershop, Mr. Lea set the bar high for civil discourse.

"He supported the youth in Atlantic City who went there because it was a safe place," Epps said. "The conversation centered around sports. It was always respectful because he demanded respect."

Mr. Lea served as a father figure to many neighborhood children, the biography said. During the dedication ceremony for the marker, Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam said Mr. Lea went so far as to send him care packages when he was away at college.

"He wasn't a wealthy man as far as money," Nynell Langford, Mr. Lea's daughter,  said. "He was rich in his giving."

If neighborhood residents were in jail, he visited them on Sundays, Langford said. "He felt that sometimes people are forgotten when they made a bad choice. He never judged."

Mr. Lea's wife, Mary "Scrap" Lea, died five years ago. In addition to his daughter Nynell, he is survived by children Edward, Terry, Michael, and Yvette Lea-Davis; nine grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; three sisters; three nephews; and a niece.

Funeral arrangements were pending. A memorial coat drive for children, called A Coat for a Sonny Day, is being planned , Nynell Langford said. Details will be released soon.