Born and raised in McKeesport, PA, James Thomas Downs, Jr. was the youngest of four children. His parents, James Thomas Downs, Sr., and Cassie Session Downs, both of whom preceded him in death, welcomed their only son on August 1, 1929. He was affectionately known as J.T. and was adored and “mothered” by his three older sisters, Alethia Downs Taylor, Kathleen Downs Smith, and Ruth Downs Le Mon. James Thomas joined his parents and siblings in eternal rest on May 25, 2022.
Several years after completing high school, J.T. joined the U.S. Army. He received an Honorable Discharge from Active Duty in 1953, at which time PFC Downs returned to McKeesport and temporarily shifted his career to the steel mill. Under the tutelage of his uncle, Henry Pierce, J.T. learned the art of barbering and was soon known as the best in the city. In addition to this craft, he built a career with UPS, making treks with the company for over 20 years. It wasn’t long after his retirement that he was back on the road as a school bus driver while still actively barbering in his shop and home. In its prime, J.T.’s Barbershop had become a school of sorts, as J.T. mentored and shaped the careers of many, including his late nephew, Shawn Taylor. In 2015 he bid farewell to the school system but continued cutting hair well into his 90s. In fact, he still had a couple of regular clients until a few short years ago.
J.T. was a man of many words and stories. Armed with the gift of gab and the memory of an elephant, he could hold lengthy conversations about anything—and he often did. It was likely his zeal for life that supplied material for his tête-à-têtes. Although he remained a lifelong resident of McKeesport, he traveled often as he enjoyed visiting family in other states. He especially loved boat fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and bringing ice-packed coolers of spot, flounder, croaker, and crabs back to McKeesport to share with family and friends. Arguably a close second to his barbering skills was his ability to leave people licking their fingers after tasting his famous smoked BBQ ribs.
He was a member of St. Paul AME Church for nearly his whole life and served his church family in various capacities. Over the years he had been a Trustee, Trustee Pro Tem and a member of the Finance Committee. Lending his unique and rich voice to worship services and church events for decades, he was most recently a member of the Senior Choir and the Ben Harris Singers. He was also a longstanding member of American Legion Post 666 in McKeesport.
J.T. enjoyed a cold beer, meeting new people, and the company of an attractive woman, but above all, he loved his family. Left to cherish his memory are his children, Keith Williams of Baltimore, MD; Carrie Downs of Jacksonville, FL; and granddaughter, Tara Downs of Jacksonville, FL. Also celebrating his life are numerous friends and family, including nieces Cassandra Henderson of Hampton, VA; Cassie Le Mon-Johnson of Pleasant Hills, PA; Kathleen (Larry) Moore of Pataskala, OH; Phyllis (Richard) Bush of Chesapeake, VA; nephews William (Glenda) Le Mon of Clairton, PA; Richard Downs of McKeesport, PA; and family friend and caregiver, Marty Francis of McKeesport, PA.