Still shining shoes - and warmng hearts at 88

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January 17, 2005 // UPDATED 1:48 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Be it a recipe for Jambalaya or a clever rhyme, Gabe Boudreaux brightens moods as well as footwear

Downtown shoe shiner Gabe Boudreaux speaks in puns.

One of his cleverest is posted on his shoe-shining stand: "I will heel you. I will save your sole. I will even dye for you."

Boudreaux, who turned 88 on Dec. 16, has shined shoes in the Northstar Center West, 625 Marquette Ave., for 17 years.

His shoe-shining stand holds more than his polishes and dyes. It's a treasure chest filled with Cajun recipes and photographs of his home in South Minneapolis and his family in Louisiana, including one of his favorites showing him next to a massive tree he

planted as a young boy in his hometown of Crowley, La., a small town about 200 miles west of New Orleans.

Boudreaux, who charges a modest $5 for his shoe-shining services, is a fixture at the Northstar Center. He always has a smile for passersby and is quick to share stories with customers and friends who sit by his stand.

He also likes to share his classic one-liners with people, such as "Life can be so beautiful, it's up to you," and "When you're in trouble and you can't call the sheriff, call me."

The poetic shoe shiner who often sports a pair of blue Velcro shoes could have retired long ago, but he keeps working for the connections he makes with his customers.

"It keeps me young," he said. "I love my relationships with people. It keeps you alive."

He still remembers his first customer - a man from Oslo, Norway who later called Boudreaux at home twice just to chat.

A more recent customer Devin Rice, who dropped by his stand earlier this month, called Boudreaux the best shoe shiner in the city.

"He's a legend," Rice, a vice president of sales for Bowne & Co., 333 S. 7th St., said.

Before he opened his shoe-shining stand, Boudreaux worked for 18 years as a mechanic in garage of the Downtown Post Office, 201 S. 1st St., and before that as a locker room attendant at a Minneapolis golf club in the 1950s. Boudreaux also worked as janitor at a streetcar station at 31st Street & Nicollet Avenue.

He also briefly ran a Creole restaurant with a friend near his home in the Regina neighborhood of South Minneapolis. He keeps copies of his favorite recipes, such as Crawfish Etouffee (crawfish with cream and peppers), Shrimp Jambalaya and Crawfish Jambalaya, in a folder in his shoe-shining stand and passes them out to friends.

Boudreaux got the idea for his shoe-shining stand while visiting a friend who used to run a barber shop in the Northstar Center. His friend recommended he start the business, and after consulting with his wife, Lois, he decided to open the stand.

He had been retired for five years and was eager to find something to keep him busy.

"I could have stayed home and retired, but I personally believe that anything that lays dormant dies," he said.

Besides keeping busy with his day job, Boudreaux loves to fix things and tend to his vegetable and flower gardens in the summer. He grows his Southern favorites, such as okra, collard greens and black-eyed peas.

Boudreaux polishes shoes Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Business has been slow in recent years. On average, he has about eight customers a day - down from 12 to 15 on a good day three years ago, he said.

He keeps a special shoe-shining chair with an engraved placard with his name on the foot stand tucked away in a nearby closet for special occasions.

Boudreaux prides himself on his work ethic and credits his mother with instilling him with his core values. "I believe in punctuality, discipline and dependability," he said.

"She told me to respect yourself first," he said, adding that she also often used the phrase, "As you sow, so shall you reap."

Her words proved invaluable for Boudreaux as a young man in the segregated South. He recalls being forced to use cups at public drinking fountains, to sit in the back of trains and buses, and to use the back entrances at stores and restaurants.

He ended up in Little Falls, Minn. during World War II while serving with the Army at Camp Ripley. He started making trips to the city on the weekends and eventually met his wife, Lois, who agreed to marry him despite his military obligations.

Boudreaux told her he was worried about the success of military marriages, but she alleviated his fears and told him, "I'm willing to gamble," he said.

The couple got married on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1942. "I was a present to her," he said, adding they had been married for 54 years when Lois passed away in 1998.

Boudreaux and his wife had four sons, Daryl, 42; Richard, 55; Harold, 57; and Kenneth, his eldest who has since passed away.

Their children attended Central High School where they all played football.

In an interview published in the Minneapolis Tribune on June 19, 1983, Boudreaux's sons Kenneth and Daryl heaped praise on their father. Boudreaux keeps copies of the article in his shoe-shining stand.

"Dad was the backbone for the family and he still is, and now he's the backbone for the whole neighborhood. These neighbors come by all the time to tell him their problems, and he listens well and talks well, and if you got a problem with your car he'll work on it and you can settle with him later," Kenneth Boudreaux said in the article.

Daryl Boudreaux spoke of his father's openness.

"He would talk with us. All through his life he talked to us. He talked to us about life, about the birds and the bees," he said. "And he always talked to us about loving each other, and we do. We're always telling each other that we love each other, and we kiss each other. We're not afraid."

The shoe-shiner shows the same kindness to his customers and strangers who pass by his stand.

"With a good attitude, you receive a lot of gratitude," Boudreaux said, with a rhyme and a smile.