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Retired U.S Naval Academy Cobbler Reflects On 53 Years Of Shoemaking

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis have to look out for their country, their classmates and their shoes. They're part of the uniform every student must wear, and they go through a lot of wear and tear. For the last 53 years, the official U.S. Naval Academy cobbler has been Ronald Smith. And now he's retired and joins us now. Mr. Smith, thanks very much for being with us.

RONALD SMITH: Thank you, sir.

SIMON: So naval cadets don't wear rubber-soled running shoes or something?

SMITH: They're issued two pair of black shoes, one pair of white. And they use one black pair to wear to class. And the other one they wear for inspection.

SIMON: And do they - let's put it this way. Do most midshipmen take good care of them?

SMITH: Not like they used to.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SMITH: The guys used to take care of their shoes because they was trained to keep their shoes up (ph). Now, after years past, when they bring them down to the shop, they have them laced up. And when they have the shoes laced, that means they put the shoes on laced, and they wear out the backs.

SIMON: Yeah. I bet they don't use shoehorns.

SMITH: They don't use shoehorns. I tried to tell them. I said, the life of the shoe is untie your shoe, keep them polished, and you won't have any problems. They're going to last you for a couple years or more. So when we see them like that, most of the time, we had to repair the backs. And some of them look like slippers. We have to repair them.

SIMON: How did you become the U.S. Naval Academy cobbler?

SMITH: I came there in '67. I went to school for the cobbler. You know, when I came there, you know, the guys was well-dressed. And I remember a captain brought his pair of shoes in. And we got to talking. And, you know - and I was telling him I was new there and everything. And he said that we train our guys to be an officer and a gentleman. And to be a gentlemen, you got to look like an officer and a gentleman. And they look from the feet up - feet, pants, and they look at their head to see if it's been cut and well-groomed.

SIMON: Yeah. That's not the case so much anymore?

SMITH: They dress when they go out. And they dress kind of nice, but not like they used to be.

SIMON: So I have to ask you, Mr. Smith, what's your advice for keeping our shoes in good repair these days?

SMITH: If you keep them - and, you know, they used to have - they do have shoe trees. They put them in their shoes.

SIMON: I use shoe trees. And I use a shoehorn. And my family thinks I'm the only man in the world who does that.

SMITH: There you go. That's the life of the shoe. And keep them polished. Use a shoehorn, and put them in shoe trees. Shoe trees keep them in shape. And shoe trees eats up the moisture in the shoe after you take them out so the shoe can breathe because leather breathes.

SIMON: Well, you've done an awful lot of good for people. Thank you for your service, Mr. Smith.

SMITH: Thank you, sir.

SIMON: Ronald Smith, longtime cobbler at the U.S. Naval Academy, is now retired after 53 years. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

SMITH: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "TWO FISH AND AN ELEPHANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.