I recall a first-grade assignment when I was to print a few words about my family. This was back in the day with super thick pencils and paper with an inch or more space between the lines. After I asked my mom what my dad’s job was, I carefully printed SHOEMAN. That seemed ok to my 6-year-old mind. I had a book about firemen. We had a mailman to deliver the mail. I even remember milk delivered by the milkman and there was an ice plant with an iceman. My dad worked with shoes so naturally he was a shoeman. Later, I changed my dad’s job title to the more respectable, or so I thought, shoe-retailer.
It was decades later before I knew anyone else had called Dad a shoeman. Here are excerpts from a column that appeared in the area newspaper, approximately 15 years after my dad sold his business. The author said he was prompted to write after taking his son to the mall where a disinterested clerk handed him several boxes of shoes with a “Here, try these on.” The column, describing his childhood experience, appeared in 1997*:
…when I needed shoes, I’d take a couple of steps across the aisle to Korte’s Shoe Store. Mr. Korte himself would greet me and Mom, sit us down in his comfortable trying-on-shoes chairs and begin the royal treatment.
While asking how Pop and other members of the family were doing, Mr. Korte would nimbly untie the double knot in my dusty high-top tennis shoes. I had put a lot of miles on them since the last time I’d been in. …. Mr. Korte would check my arches, just to make sure I did not develop flat feet like my brother and need extra support. I did not. Size 5D, he would guess. Then he would slide my foot into a metal contraption that would tell him he guessed right.
Red Ball Jets… he’d say, “high tops, white, right?” Right, Right, Right.
His store was tiny, so he did not have many shoes on display. But the back room must have been about the size of Mascoutah. No matter what you wanted, he had it in the back room.
“I’ll be right back, “he would say, and he’d disappear into the back room. He would come back carrying four or five boxes of Red Ball Jets, from a 5B to a 6 ½ D.
Mr. Korte would lace up each new pair all the way to the top and gently ease my foot into the shoe with the help of the shoehorn he kept in his shirt pocket. He always insisted I try on both left and right.
“Now take them for a test drive,” he would say. He did not mean take a step or two. He meant walk around the store, down around the sport coats, past the BVDs, over by the ties and back. If the coast was clear, he’d even let me take a run down the aisle. “Go ahead and Jump” he’d say. “that’s what you’re going to be doing in them anyway.”
“How does that feel? A little tight? He’d push his thumb around my toes. “Yeah, looks like you could use a little more room.” So, he’d try on another pair and another. Until it was just right.
We’d leave the store, I’d have the new Jets on my feet, ready to go. And the old ones would be tucked into the box in the crinkly paper Mr. Korte had tucked around them. The shoehorn that was in his shirt pocket came home with the shoes, too.
Now that’s a shoe man.
Despite a few exaggerations (Dad would not have needed to bring out such a range of sizes.), the column accurately conveys my dad’s work ethic. Dad taught me that to be successful, be scrupulously honest and work hard.
Dad always reminded me with kids’ shoes, frequently, those Red Ball Jets, “always fit them a half-size too big so they can grow into them. We want them to last all year.” Even if there was slight slippage in the heel, dad would tell the parent, “After he wears them a bit, the heel will conform to the foot as he grows. They’ll be fine.” No wonder we often had people tell us our shoes “wore longer.” We fit them that way.
Moreover, Dad’s mark-up was low. We would marvel at how much the same shoes cost in nearby St Louis. There were reasons for that. Dad’s overhead was low. He never had full-time help. Most of his part-time help was Mom or me. He did not even own the area that contained his store, which he called Korte’s Shoe Department because it was rented space in what was mostly a clothing store.
The columnist marveled at how much stock my Dad had saying there must have been a “back room the size of Mascoutah.” [Mascoutah is a nearby small town.]. Little did he know. Dad rented a ramshackle little building down the alley and across the street. He also kept shoes at our home in the garage. It might be 10 degrees in January, or raining, but after determining what our customer might need, we often would run out the back door, down the alley, across the street and into the “other building” as we called it—unless we had to jump in the car and race home.
At one point, another shoe store opened. It was part of a chain. That worried us because they carried the same brands. Would those brands keep selling to us? With only one store, our volume could not match a chain. I remember one of our suppliers telling me after the other store folded, “I told them they were up against a hard-working man.”
Dad was from a large farming family. They were not well-off. In comparison, working at his store six-days and one evening a week was easy. There were no animals to care for. No outside chores on frigid days. He even had an entire day off. It did not seem to matter that he never had a vacation. The only time he had two days off in succession was when national holidays such as Christmas fell on Saturday or Monday.
Dad’s early life must have been hard. He seldom spoke of it. I remember him saying once that he didn’t know if they (meaning his parents) “knew he was around most of the time or not.” He was in the middle of nine children and his father had a problem with alcohol. It would be easy to “get lost” as he put it. When pressed for stories, I did not receive many. I recall him telling me one Christmas there were no presents and he cried, but then his mother gave him part of a pencil she broke in half and sharpened.
Another time he talked of his dad “renting some ground,” (a piece of land was always referred to as “ground”) in Shoal Creek bottom, and how he had to take a wagon over there and cut weeds out of the corn and sleep and eat there for a few days. I have been to insect-laden locations from the tropics to Alaska and I am not sure anywhere is as bad as Shoal Creek bottom in the summer. It must have been miserable.
In addition, Dad was drafted to fight in World War II early in 1943 when he turned eighteen. Dad never wanted to talk about the War, only referring to it as a “big waste.” The only time I saw him animated when talking about military service was when I suggested there be a rule that only those older than fifty had to fight. “That’s a great idea,” he said. “That would stop it!” We eventually gleaned that Dad had seen stacks of bodies on the beach at Normandy, that he’d been adjacent to a man shot by a sniper in a mess line, and that he’d been pressed into service as a medic during the Battle of the Bulge because so many had been killed.
Later in life, he seemed nonplussed at the attention veterans received. He had the experience of being included in an “Honor Flight,” where surviving veterans were feted with a trip to Washington DC. He marveled at all the young people “thanking him for his service.” “I did what I was told,” was his response.
I am sure he did. Our Mom deserves credit for this as well, but my siblings and I grew up instilled with a sense of responsibility, integrity, and an expectation that one does a job correctly or not at all.
In looking back, I also learned a great lesson from Dad’s approach to sports—or any contest. Dad and I could compete in golf, pool, or ping-pong and try as hard as if it were the World Series but winning did not seem that important. It was the fun of trying hard and competing. It was a good lesson for me, because it seemed as if every team, I was part of lost most of its games.
Friendly competition was a primary family trait. It was strange for me to learn later that in most families, holiday get-togethers consisted of sitting around and talking. That was not something Dad enjoyed. He would stand up and suggest shooting pool, playing cards, or a board game.
He particularly enjoyed learning the intricacies of bridge. Often on Fridays, he would receive a ride from his Assisted Living Complex to a local community center where he would play bridge. In our hometown, few contests existed without money on the line. It would not be much, but it was part of the fun. The last time I talked to him it was a Monday morning. I asked if he had played bridge the Friday previous. “I did,” he said. “And I won. I brought home a couple of bucks.” At lunch that day he aspirated some food into his lungs. He succumbed to the resulting pneumonia later that week.**
As for non-competitive outdoor activities, a suggestion of a walk for the sake of walking often received the comment, “I got enough exercise in service!” Dad enjoyed seeing ducks on his pond and birds at his feeders but never cared to learn about them. On the golf course, we would frequently see Killdeers, and no matter how often I named them, the next time, he would again say, “There goes a snipe!” Driving past swamplands on the way to St Louis, Dad would spy the herons and egrets and, no matter how often I had reminded him, he would remark about all the cranes.
At his bird feeder, to him there were three species: Cardinals, sparrows, and not-sparrows. When I was in Illinois to visit, I would point out the difference between the non-native House Sparrows on the feeder, and the native White-throated Sparrows feeding underneath. He would nod appreciatively but would have forgotten by my next visit.
How could this man have taught me to watch birds?
My hometown of Highland, population four thousand at the time, housed a few commuters to St Louis, but was essentially a Southern Illinois farming community. For most of my growing-up-years, Dad had the only shoe store. Like most of my peers, I wanted to go hunting whenever I could. I was gifted a 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas during my eighth-grade year. My favorite hunting partner was my dad, but he had almost no opportunity to go. My mom and two younger siblings also deserved his time. Sunday morning was for weekly mass leaving little or no time for Dad to go hunting with me. (Saturday evening mass as a substitute for Sunday morning, did not begin until I had left home.)
We did manage an occasional hunt for rabbits after church on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, my favorite hunting was for squirrels which is best if you are in position pre-dawn. Not only are squirrels more active at that time, but most days become breezy about 8:30 or 9 when seeing a squirrel moving in the trees becomes more difficult. Between church on Sunday and the store opening at 8 or 8:30 AM every other day, squirrel hunting the way I wanted to do it, was not possible for Dad.
We went squirrel hunting once. It was an August morning before I left for my second or third year of college. I do not recall if Dad opened late that day or, more likely, Mom opened the store and my brother watched our sister for a couple of hours.
I had often hunted squirrels with friends, and a couple of times with one of Dad’s younger brothers. I was going to show Dad that I really knew what I was doing. Even if he had hunted squirrels growing up, it had been more than 20 years by now.
There were no patches of forest or woodlots near my hometown. Instead, any place with trees was a “timber.” We went to a location within the “Grantfork timber” that I knew well—or thought I did.
With squirrel hunting, usually you hunt separately, as we did. I carefully described the woods to Dad, telling him where he ought to try. We entered the woods and I suggested we meet back at the same place at a pre-determined time, probably about 9:00.
Here is what I remember: I was excited to be hunting with my Dad and determined to be successful. Squirrel hunting requires stealth with little movement. I knew that, but I had a tough time sitting because after a few minutes of seeing nothing, I would begin to believe that the clump of hickory nut trees fifty yards away was better. I would move. I would see no squirrels and begin to think that the oaks over the hill were better, and I would move again.
I kept in mind the locations I had told Dad to hunt so I did not move toward him. After a while I heard a shot. I only have one good ear so I cannot tell direction of distant sounds. I assumed it was a hunter on an adjacent property.
I kept moving from place-to-place. I never saw a squirrel. Eventually, I heard another shot. The idea that Dad might have taken these shots did not occur to me. My conviction was that on this morning, in these woods, the squirrels were not moving, or they had been hunted too hard and thinned out or were too wary.
I was frustrated and anxious and a little late to our meeting location. I walked there and looked for Dad. I saw him sitting—just where we had split up. I said, “Sorry, have you been waiting long?” He said, “No, I’ve just been sitting here.” “Lousy hunting, wasn’t it?” I said. To my amazement, he picked up two squirrels.
How could this be? I was the mighty hunter who knew these woods. I quizzed him, “Where?” “How?” He said, “Right here.” “Here?” I said in disbelief. It did not look a good place to me. I had told him where to find the Oaks and Hickories where the squirrels feed. There were mature trees all around, but no nut trees. Dad replied, “Well, this was a nice place to sit, and a nice morning, I liked just sitting and looking around. After a while, I saw a squirrel move. It came close enough. I shot it. I was comfortable, so I sat back down and after a while, another squirrel came into view. I shot that one too.”
I had worn myself out trying every “great” place in the woods and had found only frustration. I had not had a particularly enjoyable time. Dad clearly did not care if he saw or bagged a squirrel. Free time in the woods on a beautiful morning was a rare thing for him, and his priority was to enjoy being there. I have never forgotten the lesson of that hunt. Sometimes when I am watching or looking for birds, I become anxious, thinking the day may be a failure, or that I should be somewhere else. Often, I think of Dad and that squirrel hunt. I realize, I need to slow down. Sit down. Maybe this is not the best location but sit down anyway. Something might happen. I have had some of my best bird and wildlife encounters that way. Thanks Dad!
*Excerpts from “Its comforting to be solemates with a shoe man,” Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News Democrat, June 6, 1997.
**Dad died October 28, 2015. He was 91.