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Saying goodbye to Sonny Joe 

Sonny Joe Cross pictured with what he loved most: his music. Courtesy Sharing Our Stories

On weekends, Sharon Cross’s childhood home was filled with music. That was when her father, Sonny Joe Cross, would be home from his work on construction sites in Brooklyn, New York, and he would finally have the time to listen to his beloved record collection.  

“When he came back to Kahnawake in 1983, he knew other people at K1037 who did shows, and he’d play a few records,” Sharon said. “And then he started in 1990 with his own show, and he continued for 33 years. He never missed a Sunday. He was really dedicated to that work.” 

Sonny Joe passed away peacefully at Anna Laberge Hospital after a short illness on March 20, at the age of 94. He was surrounded by family, and every one of his grandchildren had the chance to say goodbye. 

Sharon said it’s what her father would have wanted, having spent his life cultivating his large family with his wife of 73 years, Gladys Thomas. 

“He was very, very proud of his family. He and my mother did a good job, and we’ve tried to do the same with our children and their children,” Sharon said. “He taught us how to retire, he told us that you don’t just stop, you have to keep doing things, and you do it from the heart. You give everything you can. So that’s what we’ve always done, my sisters and I; we volunteer, and we try to emulate the things that he did.” 

It wasn’t just his own blood that looked up to Sonny Joe. For many in the community, he was a confidante, a mentor, and a role model.   

“When he spoke to people, he made an impression, and he changed people’s lives. He would help people, and we’d find out years later that he counselled people,” said Sharon, adding that many in the community would sit with Sonny Joe in his former store, Tota’s Tickle Trunk, and speak with him for hours. “Years later, people would say to me ‘Your father helped me with all of this.’ He became a mentor and a father figure to so many people and he never told anybody.” 

Someone who considered Sonny Joe to be a father figure and mentor is Peggy Mayo-Standup, who knew him growing up but only became close to him in the late 1980s, when she saw him walking home and offered him a ride. That ride led to years of friendship, including their years working together at K1037. 

“He was very funny, extremely funny. It was always a pleasure to be with him because I would laugh my head off,” said Mayo-Standup, who would often spend hours at his house with him and Thomas. “Being in the company of him and Gladys was like a comedy show. They were the real Archie Bunker and Edith. If I felt sad, that’s where I went because I knew I was coming out laughing.”  

Laughter and music were the sounds of Sonny Joe, Mayo-Standup said, remembering fondly his love of records. 

“People loved his radio show. They couldn’t wait until Sundays came. People wanted the music that he played, and he would find the exact song. I’ve never seen anyone with a music collection like what he had,” she said, recalling the huge variety of genres and artists he collected.  

“Sometimes I’d be the one looking for a song, and I’d need to scrub my hands and put the white gloves on. He’d watch me like a hawk!” 

Sonny Joe made the decision to turn away from alcohol at the age of 37, which is what initially led him to fill his time with music instead, which he said saved his life, in a Sharing Our Stories interview. His youth had been difficult, having survived residential school in Spanish, Ontario, something he didn’t open up about for many years.  

“Residential school weighed heavy on him. We always left it to him. It was his story, and he didn’t tell us all the horrors of it, of course, because he wanted to protect his children,” said Sharon. “But we knew what he went through, and seeing how he overcame it and how he flourished was really helpful to us, to see him get well, get better, and choose to help others.” 

Sonny Joe leaves behind him a family and community that will always carry his legacy in their actions, as well as a wealth of stories and knowledge that he’s passed down through various work, including in the form of archival interviews with Sharing Our Stories.  

As per his wishes, no funeral service will occur, but loved ones are instead invited to make donations to the Iakwahwatsiratátie Language Nest, Kahnawake Fire Brigade, or Karihwanoron Mohawk Immersion school in his name.  


This article was originally published in print on March 29 in issue 33.13 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.