Bert Downing was a man who believed in second chances and gave back to his North Lawndale community every chance he got.
Downing mentored young people, helped recovering addicts to find work and even opened the doors of his barbershop every Friday to a local radio station, creating a space for community members to talk about issues that mattered to them.
Downing died Nov. 17. He succumbed to injuries he suffered during a car crash. He was 46.
“He had a lot of influence in the neighborhood,” said Ora Lee Downing, his mother. “He helped everyone. He was kind. He didn’t know how to say ‘no’ to people.”
Downing started working at Carter’s Barbershop after he was released from jail. He had been struggling with substance abuse. He got himself clean, and Cleotha Carter, the former owner of the shop, helped him to become a barber, his sister Linda Haywood said.
Haywood said her brother became a great barber, and after Carter died, Downing became the owner. He also continued Carter’s tradition. He mentored other young men and helped one of his workers to obtain his barber’s license.
“He’s proof that you can turn your life around,” she said.
Downing greeted everyone coming into his shop with a smile. He was ‘married’ to the shop. He stood behind the cutting chair, wearing an ear piece, ready to answer the phone without slowing himself down. He loved sports. When he was young, he wrestled, earning several awards and he loved playing and watching basketball. He also liked spending time with his 21-year-old daughter, Lee Downing said.
He was also proud of hosting a weekly radio show. “The Barbershop Show,” broadcast live every Friday at noon from his shop on Vocalo.org, is a public affairs show tackling issues of race, politics, labor, among other topics. The Chicago Reporter collaborates on the show.
“In 2010, a guy on Chicago’s West Side opened up the floor of his barbershop for public dialogue. He wanted the conversations of politics, sports, race and justice to be played out not just among the guys cutting hair and the ones waiting for their hair to be cut. He wanted people to know more about the West Side, not just the stories about crime that made the day’s headlines,” said Kimbriell Kelly, former publisher of the Reporter and host of “The Barbershop Show.”
“Bert was a kind man, one who in his signature gray vest and black T-shirts, knew everyone by name and who loved North Lawndale. He was more than the voice behind the show’s intro, he was the behind-the-scenes heart and soul of the show.”
Friday Nov.22, 2013
Corbin Colonial Funeral Chapel
5345 W Madison St. Chicago, IL 60644
3:00 pm – 7:00 pm
Saturday Nov. 23, 2013
Lawndale Christian Community Church
3827 W. Ogden Ave. Chicago, IL 60623
11:00 am – 1:00 pm