ATLANTIC CITY — As a teenager, Jimmy Bair knew he could play basketball, but he did not have a father at home to give him that outside affirmation, to tell him that seeing him play filled him with pride.
Bair, an Atlantic City High School player, received that symbolic pat on the back from William “Sonny” Lea, owner of Sonny’s Hair Salon on North Kentucky Avenue.
Lea took Bair’s picture and proudly mounted the photo in the window of his barbershop, along with other pictures of the city’s best athletes.
The 83-year-old Lea died from internal injuries received when he was rear-ended in a car crash Monday night on Route 322 in Williamstown, according to Nynell Langford, one of his five children. Press of Atlantic City photographer Edward Lea also is one of Lea’s children.
The time, date and location for Lea's viewing and funeral was set on Thursday. The viewing takes place from 9 to 11 a.m. immediately followed by the funeral from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Adrian Phillips Theater inside Boardwalk Hall here.
“He was such a great man. He cared about his family. He was a family man first, but he also took in the whole community on the Northside as his family, too,” said Bair, 50. “He was a father figure to the community.”
During more than 40 years in business, Lea helped people find careers, worked with the neighborhood youth and had his business serve as a forum for the community.
A historical marker was dedicated to Lea in December 2013 at the southeast corner of Arctic and Kentucky avenues.
“A pillar in the community, he is a tireless advocate for youth education coupled with athletics,” the marker says.
Sonny’s Hair Salon is the last landmark on Kentucky Avenue in what was the heart of the resort’s African-American business district.
Lea started cutting hair in 1969 on North Kentucky Avenue. Grace’s Beauty and Barber Shop became Sonny’s when the owners retired in 1973.
Langford, the wife of former Mayor Lorenzo Langford, said her husband was like the deputy mayor, but her father was the real mayor of the resort.
“Our dad was more than our dad. He was the community dad, the community godfather,” said Langford, adding Lea was at his barbershop standing on his feet for hours cutting hair as recently as Saturday.
Langford, 59, said she never heard her father utter a bad word about anyone. He was nonjudgmental and used to spend his Sundays visiting a local person who was in prison.
As an example of the types of things her father used to do, he drove the current mayor, Frank Gilliam, to college for the first time, Langford said.
“He was like a father to me, a man with a true, loving heart, and his selflessness is one of the reasons I’m who I am today,” Gilliam said.
Lea had many relationships outside the city in regards to basketball that he leveraged to give opportunities to young people, City Council President Marty Small Sr. said.
“He had ties down in Baltimore and D.C., and we played all those cities during the summer. We would go visit them, and in return, they would come visit us,” Small said.
Lea was born in Caswell County, North Carolina, and raised in Danville, Virginia, according to his honorary marker. He moved to the resort in 1960 after being honorably discharged from the Air Force.
He worked in hotels and restaurants before he started working as a barber at the Little New York Barbershop.
Sonny’s Hair Salon has been the training ground for a new generation of barbers in the city, many of whom started their own shops.
A lifelong city resident, Bair used to get his hair cut at Lea’s shop.
Following in Lea’s footsteps, Bair trained to make his living as a barber. Lea gave Bair his first job. Bair spent 1½ to two years working at Lea’s shop, and now has been a barber for almost 30 years.
Bair, who is commonly known as J. Love, has been a barber for at least 20 years at Omar & Abdullah’s Hair Bazaar on Atlantic Avenue.
“He was a fabric of the community that will never be able to be stitched back,” Bair said. “He’s probably at peace cutting God’s hair right now.”