When Sonny Sneed was only six months away from graduating high school, he dropped out.
That was in 1962: decades before he became an inventor in the late 1980s. But even then, he was no stranger to hard work. Growing up in what he describes as a “shack” without running water, he was used to working from a young age to provide for himself and his family. At only six years old, he started picking cotton in the fields of Montezuma, Georgia, a town so small at the time it wasn’t even listed on a map.
What followed his dropout was a slew of restaurant jobs washing dishes. He could make a dollar an hour at most Akron-area restaurants, far more than the time it took to make $2.50 per 100 pounds of cotton in Georgia.
Besides, his father didn’t send him to school in the nice clothes he wanted to wear, so he figured if he dropped out, he could make money to better dress himself.
“You will never catch me dead in tennis shoes and blue jeans,” Sneed said. “You never know who you’re going to meet. That was something we learned down South: you may not have much, but how you carry yourself is everything.”
Sneed is like that. His friends and colleagues all describe him the same way: “a character” who is passionate, driven and “has an opinion about everything.”
Sneed first moved to Akron when he was 13 to live with his dad, who had left the South as part of the great migration to Akron to feed the rubber industry. He recalls the train ride north as his first time ever interacting with white people. His stint in Ohio didn’t last long before he returned to his mother’s home.
“First of all, it was cold as hell,” he said with a laugh. “But I couldn’t stand all the fighting.”
Growing up in a southern, predominantly Black town during the Jim Crow era, Sneed said he never before experienced prejudice before attending the integrated Akron middle school his father sent him to.
“Down there, nobody was worried about ‘you Black, you white.’ I never experienced anything like it,” Sneed recalled. “The whites stayed on their side and we stayed on ours. Nobody bothered anybody. I didn’t — and still today don’t — understand what’s going on with people in this country. Why hate me?”
So he returned to Georgia, picking cotton until he was 17, when he decided to return to Akron for his senior year at South High School. This time, he stayed for good.
After he dropped out, his father kicked him out. He said he simply “wouldn’t give up,” maintaining several jobs and shining shoes at the train station he slept at. That early-in-life perseverance and ingenuity, he said, is what ultimately led to his career as an inventor.
Though he said he never intended to be an inventor, his drive and problem solving accidentally brought him to it. In 1986, while working at a nut manufacturing company in Kent he had worked for since 1964, he conceived an idea to create a more durable and efficient tool to punch holes in metal: a method that is used in nearly any metal-produced product, from fences to cars to lamps to planes. The tool his company had used a conventional single tip that would precisely cut a clean hole in metal, but Sneed thought he could make it better.
He worked with an engineer to create a prototype of a dual-tip punch, so when one head wore out, another one would be present to keep the job going.
He patented the dual-tip punch in 1988, but he had difficulty securing financial backing and lacked the engineering expertise to produce the product more widely. Each tool he produced on his own cost him about $1,000.
“Regardless of success, he has done the journey and overcome it,” says Michael Kormushoff, Sneed’s longtime friend and former director of the Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at the University of Akron.
Kormushoff, one of the founders of the local production company Moonlight Pictures, worked to create a trailer for a documentary about Sneed’s life they are working to pitch to executive producers.They hope to complete and distribute the project nationally.
“Nothing is going to stop him from living, being positive, influencing young people. There’s tangible money thing, but there’s intangible things in life,” Kormushoff continued. “Sonny is an intangible success to living your life daily and the journey. It gave him the motivation every day to get up and go after it.”
But Sneed does have one regret: not continuing his education.
“I’m embarrassed by it, but I never even finished high school,” Sneed said. “In my opinion, education is the key to the Black race. Without education, we are not going anywhere.”
Now, Sneed seeks to inspire students to continue with their education, not only through traditional schooling, but alternative programs like trade schools and career-readiness programs.
“I want to be a model to young Black kids. I want to show that you can be successful in something other than being an athlete or musician. Because for a lot of them, they see that as the only way to get out.”
He works with Akron Public Schools, which has a 46.5% Black population, in whatever capacity he can: from speaking to classes to working with students.
“For many of the students, seeing someone that looked like them and listening to his story and how he really stuck to his guns over many years and not giving up is a very relevant story for our youth today,” said David James, Akron Public Schools’ superintendent from 2008-2021. James attributes much of his career-readiness focus during his tenure as superintendent to working with Sneed.
“We sat down and had conversations about how we could retool our career technical programs and he had some ideas on how to get more students interested not just in strict career programming but this whole piece about entrepreneurship,” James said. “Having those conversations with Sonny helped me solidify my thoughts around what we could offer our kids and really focus on the creativity piece. They could actually create ideas and products.”
Sneed talks about founding his own trade school for adults looking for a career change or training in a specific field or the possibility of the Moonlight Pictures documentary sharing his story to inspire potential Black entrepreneurs like him. He believes that after being molded by a lifetime of hard work, triumph, hardships and success, anything is possible.
Just not in a pair of jeans or tennis shoes.
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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