By PHIL JOHNSON/For The News-Gazette
Cutting hair in the barbershop no one ever expected him to own, Seon Williams entertains in frenzied, fluid motions. In front of him rests a client, to the left a ringing phone he will not answer, to the right one of 30 or so visitors who stops by every day to show love.
The 42-year-old's 2008 black Mercedes-Benz SL 550 convertible, visible through the window behind him, sits parked out front of The Whip Hair Designs in Champaign. Newspaper clippings, plaques, neighborhood event fliers and funeral programs paint his walls. Photos of friends and family frame his faded mirror. A scissor cut here, a close shave there, and Williams steps back to admire his work.
Later today, he and his funeral director will take a body resting in his funeral home across town for cremation. He will also sell a family its first insurance policy. He will return to his shop intermittently for scheduled haircuts. He hopes to have time to attend tonight's Champaign City Council meeting.
But, right now, something he heard at church last Sunday has Williams reflecting on the meaning of real friendship.
A razor wrapped in the long, thick brown fingers of his right hand waves side to side as he speaks.
"Pastor Johnson over at Jericho said if we just listen, we will see who our true friends are," he says as his soft brown eyes widen from ovals to circles as if to say, "Think about that." His eyes do that a lot.
The topic is critics, or as Williams calls them, "dreambusters."
"They everywhere, man. People always wanna doubt you. They see you doing well for yourself, and they feel insecure. They can't feel good for you and show you love. What I'm trying to do is provide an example and opportunities for others to succeed."
"Least likely to succeed." That's what he remembers an assistant principal and a teacher at Urbana High School calling him decades ago. He nearly believed them.
Where does one of 22 siblings and half-siblings growing up in poverty on Hickory Street in Champaign find opportunity? The answer, for Williams, was the military.
The summer of 1986, after his junior year of high school, Williams enlisted in delayed entry for the Army. In basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., that summer, he learned how to properly brush his teeth, make his bed and tie his shoes. The following summer he left for Fort Bragg, N.C.
The next 6 1/2 years sent Williams all around Europe. He liked how no one in the military cared about his background. The military cared only about solutions.
"I believe every young man should join the military," Williams says. "It shows you how to take control over your environment. It shows you how to be a game changer."
Williams wakes up every morning between 6:30 and 7 a.m.
"The first thing I do is praise God and then debrief with my wife," he says.
Debrief. An insurance agent/funeral director/barber needs a daily plan. When Williams opened The Whip in 1999, he saw it as a straight, steady job. He began cutting hair in the military and earned his barber's license from Concept College of Cosmetology in Urbana after he mustered out in 1994. His "Most Promising Graduate" plaque hangs on his shop wall.
He opened the shop with a $10,000 grant from Champaign's Community Collaboration for Economic Development. The grant specifically sought out black businessmen. He knows it took faith to open the shop with his limited education and limited resources. He envisioned a high-scale, high-volume barbershop. "Whip 'em in, whip 'em out," a friend told him. The name stuck, the idea did not. The demand wasn't there: 904 N. 4th St. in Champaign wasn't an up-scale, high-volume part of town.
"I began to think of it this way," Williams says. "If a customer does not have money to pay me, how am I going to pay the bills?"
Williams expanded his vision. He posted job openings in the shop. He told single mothers they could drop off their children for a haircut and pick them up after running errands. He cut hair for free in neighborhood parks during cookouts and in senior centers. "We even had a jar back in the day. It was for community members' prison commissaries."
The Whip became a gathering place for a wide array of African Americans.
"I have professionals come in here for a haircut, and I have people come in who can't even spell the word 'professional,'" Williams says. "I see a barber's clientele as a reflection of self. You have to ride the elevator up and down. For me, that's easy. I have family like that."
By his 28th birthday, Seon Williams had lost five of his brothers. At age 6, he saw James, his 19-year-old brother, hang himself. It was just after church a few days before Christmas. He and his older siblings used to run upstairs in their old house on Beardsley Street in Champaign and compete to see who could change out of their Sunday school clothes the fastest, and the first one back downstairs won.
Seon remembers losing that day to his brother, Joe. But when Seon got downstairs, Joe didn't brag. He stared. James was flailing. Seon and Joe ran to get help, but by the time they got back, it was too late.
"I wish I could have known better that day," Williams says. "But I was too young to understand what was going on."
Williams' mother, Roline Brumfield, moved the family out of the house after James died. Death followed. Brother Rap died from pneumonia. Gerald was shot and killed at an after-hours joint. Danny died in prison. Ricky fell victim to AIDS.
"When you grow up in poverty, pain is inevitable," Williams says. "For me, I just have to pray on it and move forward toward a solution."
In 2003, Williams opened a restaurant next door to his barbershop — "The Whip Caf with a Taste of Soul." His mother served as head cook. It felt great, putting his mother to work in something they both loved.
On the caf's first Thanksgiving, they served free dinners to hundreds. That year, Williams and his mother earned the Black Business of the Year Award from Champaign's Council of African-American Men. That plaque hangs on his barbershop wall, too. Williams sold the restaurant in 2006 when it became too much for his aging mother to handle.
In 2010, he opened Williams Memorial Services, after his best friend and workout partner, Antonio Monyeil Turner, collapsed and died of a heart attack. Williams organized his friend's funeral. After mourners praised his organization and attention to detail, he opened his own funeral home.
Twenty funerals into his business, Williams noticed a trend: Fifteen of the families he served were left without insurance. A few weekend classes later, Williams earned his insurance license.
Seon Williams wears his Sunday finest every day of the week. When he sits down a client, he hangs his coat jacket and works in a dress shirt and tie, dress pants and dress shoes. Several plastic wristbands adorn his right arm. One touts a fundraiser for The Church of The Living God.
A week ago, a friend stopped by selling wristbands for another church. They read "Dream, Drive, Team." He bought two. A 73-inch Sony flat-screen television dominates the center of The Whip, and clients can change the channel to whatever they want. That usually means sports. In Williams' corner sits his own television, a 40-inch Sanyo. He watches the morning shows ... but, when the soaps start, he changes to CNN.
"I like staying current with the world," he says.
The recent Trayvon Martin coverage catches his eye.
"Isn't Trayvon the kid who got shot up in Chicago?" asks a client.
"It was down in Sanford, Fla.," Williams says.
And he wonders: Was Trayvon Martin ever labeled "least likely to succeed?"
Phil Johnson is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.