Barry Saunders

He was Michelangelo, and my hair was his canvas – Saunders

Jimmy Leak was the barber nearly everyone in Rockingham wanted to go to.
Jimmy Leak was the barber nearly everyone in Rockingham wanted to go to.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

–Martin Luther King Jr.

Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if those heavenly hosts, along with Shakespeare and Beethoven, are lining up to get a little taken off the top or to tighten up the sides of their fades, to smooth out their Julius Caesars or even to tidy up a scraggly beard. (We’re talking about you, Shakespeare.)

Jimmy Leak, a man few if any of you have ever heard of but a legend among those who have, died on New Year’s Eve in Rockingham. He was 69. He was also a genius, an artiste, made no less true by the fact that his genius and artistry was heralded mostly in Richmond County.

The Rev. LeCounte Nedab’s funeral oration was called “The Final Cut,” and the auditorium at Leak Street School, his alma mater and the site of his funeral, was packed with men whom he’d sent forth into the world with an extra bounce in their step.

There are barbershop debates over whether Jordan or Kareem or Wilt was the greatest basketball player, or whether Nicklaus or Arnie was the greatest golfer. There has never been any debate, at least not by anyone who ever sat in his chair, over who was the greatest barber.

The same way some have rhapsodized over Michelangelo’s paintings, I’ve heard men rhapsodize over Jimmy Leak’s artistry with a pair of clippers or scissors. For some reason, many of us always referred to him as Jimmy Leak, sometimes Leak, never Jimmy.

A cop buddy of mine in Rockingham, while sitting around dubbing cassette tapes for me from albums – that gives you an idea how long ago it was – admitted that he’d turned down a job offer in another city partly because he couldn’t bear the idea of losing Jimmy Leak as his barber.

How ridiculous, I thought, until I got a job offer in Indiana a year later and had to decide whether to keep publishing my own newspaper and stay broke – but have a flawless hightop fade – or leave, make some money and risk never looking quite as dashing as I did when I left his chair.

Of course I took the new job – bill collectors had discovered all of my hiding places by then – but there was a moment when I wished I hadn’t. One day while standing at a bus stop in Gary, Ind., on my way to work, a packed school bus stopped at a red light in front of me.

“Ha ha,” some smart-alecky kid shouted, “look at that man’s fade.”

No one, I remember thinking, ever laughed at my fade when Jimmy Leak cut my hair.

He worked as a corrections officer at Cameron Morrison Training School, served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was one of the most stylish cats you’ll ever see. Like any great artist, he refused to be rushed, often spending 20 minutes more on a head even after you thought the dude in the chair couldn’t possibly look any better. He invariably did, though.

Frustrating? Sure, it was, especially if you were running late for a hot date or were in a hurry to get somewhere. No one ever, ever complained, though.

That’s because you knew that when it was your turn, he would be just as meticulous and unhurried, and wouldn’t release you from the chair until your cut was perfect, too.

Since his death, I’ve asked some of his customers what was the longest time they ever waited to get a cut.

Some dudes said they waited as many as eight hours. My personal record was six. If it was the day before or of a big event – a graduation, a party, Easter church services – you’d better pack a lunch and a good book.

So coveted was a spot in his chair that he had a room added onto his home just for his customers. Despite that, you sometimes still had to wait in your car or under the big tree in his yard until someone cleared out. After he finished with you, he’d splash some of that blue stuff into his hands and rub it into your scalp.

“That,” one customer loudly announced, “is to make your hair grow back quicker so you have to come back.”

Everyone, even Jimmy Leak, laughed.

I hadn’t sat in his chair for more than 25 years – the fade style faded out, as did the hair on top of my head – but every time I saw him on visits back to Rockingham, I felt compelled to introduce him to everyone as the greatest barber who ever lived.

So, move over, Beethoven. Make way for another great artist, one of whom it can be truly said, “Here lived a great barber who did his job well.”

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9