Cy is angel barber of Pratt St. to many Tradition: Cutting hair, talking with politicians and telling stories, Avara continues family habit of giving to those in need. Neighbors, officials, barbers he trained attest to his generosity.

December 07, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

It's a thread in the family fabric. You help all year, not just Dec. 25.

During the Depression, Mom Serio, from Sicily, gave vegetables and meats to the poor in Southwest Baltimore. One of her 12 children, Mary Avara, later dispensed bread and soup to neighbors and, at 86, has her own informal ministry for the ailing.

"My mother raised us that way," Mary Avara said.

Her son, Cy Avara, figures people are hungry the day before Christmas and they need clothes the day after.

"Charity begins at home and in your neighborhood."

Speaking was Cy the barber, 63, also known as Simon V. Avara -- businessman, controversial barber-industry booster, storyteller and confidant of politicians.

Many friends, however, grade him highest for the goods collected for the needy and the barber vocation and counseling he has given hundreds of young men such as Nathaniel Smith, who now owns his own shop in East Baltimore.

"Cy should've been a priest," his mother said. "He does such good things, like Mom Serio."

The smiling Samaritan is the same Cy whose customers remain loyal over time. After 26 years of haircuts, Jonathan Acton II, principal counsel to the Motor Vehicle Administration, notes the barber's stories compete with his shears and comb. "Cy takes so long to cut your hair, by the time he's done, your hair's starting to grow again."

This is the Cy whose shop and barber school have trained at least 1,900 barbers. "The amazing thing is Cy's school is virtually a social service agency; he turns lives around," said Frank DeFilippo, a political commentator and 26-year client. "A lot of his students are ex-cons or former welfare people".

This is the Cy who took his business name upscale from the Baltimore School of Barbering to the International Academy of Hair Design and Technology, but who for 36 years has stuck to his original business address, 1500 W. Pratt St., just blocks from where he grew up.

Not as visible anymore is the feisty former president of the State Board of Barber Examiners, who often used to clash with officials Annapolis. Critics said some of his losing battles -- against cosmetologists becoming barbers and for more barber training -- were purely moves for greater profits. He also won fights -- to bar haircut taxes and mobile barber shops.

Gov. Harry Hughes ousted him as president in 1979. There is a less public Avara today.

"Cy is remarkable," said 3rd District Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, whose hair needs less work now than 30 years ago, when Avara began ministering to his summit. "Cy bucked the trend of many businesses leaving the city. He trusts people. They trust him."

The demographics of Avara's neighborhood have shifted, and it is no longer home to Italians such as Avara and his wife, Rita, who live in Cockeysville. But Avara has kept the nerve center of his business in the increasingly black area.

All his students on Pratt Street are black. In the cycle of changing hair fashions, the "neat cut" is in, his teachers report.

"These are also my people," Avara said. "This is still my neighborhood."

Nor did he forget what his mother and his grandmother taught him about giving to others. "Mom raised us kids that way after my father died in a car crash."

Avara recalled grandmother Concetta Serio giving food away at home or "selling 6-pound bags of potatoes as 5 pounds" at their Hollins Market stall.

His son, Larry, one of Cy and Rita's four children, traced this tradition of giving to his grandmother, Mary. "A good half of Grandmother Avara's house on South Carrollton Avenue was games, toys, clothes, food for others. She collected it, it wasn't real well organized, but people came to the house. She helped everyone."

Larry, who, with Thorton Coffey, directs the Dundalk branch of the academy, collects clothes from friends for the Salvation Army. The fourth generation has a familiar refrain: "We did that at home".

The Pratt Street shop, a place where politicians dropped in to exchange the news when Avara was on the state barber board, now is more a neighborhood club, a hangout.

It is also a place where youngsters have come in barefoot and walked out in shoes. It's where clothes, toys and other goods pour in all year.

David J. Preller Sr., a Towson attorney, is a typical visitor. For 15 or 20 years, his family has given clothing to be distributed. "He's top notch an angel," he said of Avara.

The shop is also a planning center for raising money for St. Vincent's Center for abused children, on Pot Spring Road. Last March volunteer barbers raised $2,000 in an annual event sponsored by the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

Goods and food flow there for communicants and residents around St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on Poppleton Street.

The camaraderie in the warren of barber rooms, classes and offices is one reason that Smith, who is unmarried, still lives above the Avara school.

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