Lockport Township man honored for years of community service
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com July 17, 2013 2:10PM
Percy Conway stands outside his Lockport Township home and talks about how he used to plant flowers on every corner to improve his neighborhood. | Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 19, 2013 11:32AM
Two words that definitely are not in Percy Conway’s vocabulary are “I can’t.”
Conway was just a teenager when he moved to the area from Canton, Miss., with a vision of having his own business.
“I came here as a kid with nothing. With perseverance and endurance, you can accomplish what you set out to do,” Conway said.
Years ago, he not only set out to build his own barbershop business from the ground up, but also to make his Fairmont community in unincorporated Lockport Township a better place.
Conway, 82, who recently retired as a Lockport Township trustee, still trims an occasional head of hair — by appointment only — and remains active in the Lockport Township High School Foundation, the high school’s vocational advisory board, and Shiloh Baptist Church.
In addition to owning — and still operating — Conway’s Barbershop and Conway’s Hi-Style Beauty Center next door to his home, over the years he also had a gas station, garage and tire shop, barbecue restaurant, ice cream stand, and clothing boutique — all within a block of his State Street home.
After opening his barbershop in 1967, he looked for ways to improve his community. He worked with Easter Seals, Beverly Bank, SOS Children’s Village, Lockport Lions Club and Lockport Township High School. The walls of his shop are lined with certificates and plaques, a testament to his decades of community service.
“I wanted to restore respect to the neighborhood. I had to start some place,” he said. “If you live in this community you are expected to help maintain it.
“So many times a beauty shop or barber shop is just gossip. I did not get into that,” Conway said. “Many people tell me they just come to the shop for wisdom, to hear me philosophize. I share stories of what I experienced. I try to set an example for young men.”
His experiences included enduring brutal conditions with the U.S. Army on the front lines of the Korean War, later attending Weeden Barber College at Halsted Street and Madison, while working full time at Mastic Tile to support his wife and four children, and then building his barbershop with $200 and his own sweat and resourcefulness.
As he improved his property — and planted flowers on every corner — others were motivated to do the same, he said.
“Way back, this area was no man’s land. People moved away. The houses were not kept up. But I stayed to improve the area,” Conway said. “I stayed and I used what resources we had. That was my agenda when I became a trustee 23 years ago.”
He was initially appointed to the Lockport Township Board, then successfully ran for five terms, serving under three supervisors.
Conway got involved with the township board because he “needed some leverage to get things done around here,” he said.
“We had no roads, no representation,” he said of his 2-square-mile Fairmont neighborhood and its 850 residents.
Sandwiched between Lockport and Joliet, neither wanted to annex the area because it was blighted, he said.
Conway defines Fairmont’s borders as Dellwood Avenue on the north, Rosalind on the south, Farrell Road on the east, and the Des Plaines River on the west.
At one point the two cities agreed to each annex half, but residents did not want to be divided, and if they were to be annexed, they preferred Lockport.
When first elected, Conway sent letters to all his Fairmont neighbors urging them to promote change and improve living conditions.
While on the township board, Conway worked to secure a $1.3 million loan — which was later forgiven — to provide water and sewer service to Fairmont homes. The township improved the streets, got grants to repair abandoned homes, offered free bus service to seniors, hosted an annual clean-up day, and passed an ordinance requiring wider lots.
As Conway stands in his spacious back yard, amid his orchard and vegetable garden, he points to nearby homes that he bought, renovated and sold to make the area more attractive. He was responsible, he said, for getting Habitat for Humanity to build homes here, and he obtained bus shelters and weather warning sirens. And he talks about how he got local kids involved in doing community service by cleaning up their neighborhood.
Kids still call him, looking for community service hours, he said.
“You can make a difference. That’s what I tried to do,” Conway said.
He decided not to seek re-election this spring because “within my soul I felt I had enough and would allow a younger person to take over. I had enough. I did my job,” he said.
At his last meeting as a township trustee in May, the board passed a resolution honoring Conway for “unselfishly dedicating his life to public service.”
“He’s done a lot for the community and all of Lockport,” Township Supervisor Ron Alberico said. “He’s always been an inspiration to me. I go to him, even today, for advice.”
According to Conway, people now have respect for the Fairmont area and are investing in the neighborhood.
There is only one thing he did not accomplish — Conway wanted to get the Fairmont name on its water tower to give the area an identity.
“I felt we deserved an identity. We want to be counted. We are not ashamed of Fairmont like we used to be,” he said.