Just after Prince Philip’s funeral, the internet buzzed about his love for the dressy black shoes that he polished, resoled, and wore for over 70 years. Journalists and readers alike marveled over this tidbit, praising him as “sentimental” and “thrifty.” I wasn’t surprised at all that someone would do this, only that a royal would do it. It’s long been said that you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes. Even Forrest Gump’s mama knew that a person’s shoes tell “where they going, where they been.”
My father polished his shoes, or at least shined them, every day. Sometimes it was in the evenings, and I could sit with him. His wooden valet shoe shine box allowed him to prop up each black oxford shoe and provided a compartment for brushes, polishes, and chamois cloths. I thought his habit was an Army requirement. He was a Lieutenant Colonel when I was born, and even as a young child I knew that officers wore polished shoes. The epitome of an officer, Dad stood tall and straight, with a distinguished but not haughty demeanor, and impeccable attire.
My father didn’t polish only the shoes he wore to work. He also shined the wingtips he wore to church and the brown oxfords he donned for family outings and errands. (He also had them resoled.) When my older sister and I were little, he took care of the shoes that our mother had carefully selected with us – black or white patent for Sunday school and church depending on the season, and cordovan or brown leather for school. The rich smell of polish signified the transformation of the shoes and sparked excitement about the coming day. By age nine, under Dad’s watch, I had eagerly taken over the care of my shoes and, sometimes I got to help him with his.
Despite my love of shiny footwear, my father’s opinions about shoes didn’t always resonate with me. One morning during a summer break from college, I dressed for my office job in an attractive white skirt trimmed in navy blue with a coordinated check-print blouse. Normally I wore either closed-back or sling-back pumps to work, but that day I donned wedged flip-flop sandals with blue grosgrain straps. They were brand new, in pristine condition. My father took one look at my feet and sternly said, “Don’t you think those shoes look too beachified for work?” (I still can hear my sister hooting “beachified?” when I retold the story.) I acquiesced and put on heels to avoid a debate. I didn’t want to admit it, but he was right. As Forrest Gump’s mama opined, shoes say where you’re going. Grosgrain flip-flops said I was going to play somewhere, not work at an office.
Not all of my father’s shoes were shiny or suitable, though. Into his sixties, Dad did yard work in his old infantry boots. He was an avid gardener, so this wasn’t occasional behavior. It was routine, and he wore each pair of boots until they no longer could be salvaged, even at the best repair shop. And then there were his “perfectly good” evening slippers that he wore around the house. Once, these had been handsome brown leather shoes, but Dad wore them well beyond their expected life and used layers of black duct tape to hold them together.
When my father died, we honored his wish to be buried in his Army dress uniform, fitting for the national cemetery where he would be interred. The shiny black shoes that completed the uniform were in his closet, near his polished wingtips and oxfords. The closet also housed an electric shoe-shine machine, a gift from my mother, although he still used his trusty valet box. And there in the closet – alongside the immaculate wingtips and oxfords – were Dad’s house slippers covered with duct tape. The last of the worn-out infantry boots were in the garage.
His dress shoes, wingtips and oxfords told a straightforward story. The oldest of five children born to Georgia farmers, my father enlisted in the Army as an infantry soldier. He then earned officer status, moved up the ranks, and retired after 30 years as a distinguished senior officer – an Inspector General no less. While WWII provided opportunities early on for my father to advance, his disciplined appearance and demeanor helped secure them. His Army personnel file says as much. Later, as a college CFO, he acquired enough funding to transform a small girls’ college into a major co-educational university. In both of my father’s careers, the polished and shined shoes made complete sense.
But the beat-up shoes he wore at home and in the yard were mysteries, and their images lingered with me. The slippers and boots couldn’t have been comfortable and supportive for a tall, long-legged man who developed a bad back and severe sciatica. Maybe they even contributed to his ailments. According to Mama Gump, shoes say where you’ve been, and I see now that Dad’s beat-up shoes tell the other side of his story.
As my father strove and ascended professionally, he sent money home to his parents when he joined the Army, bought Savings Bonds, and built a house with plumbing for his mother and siblings after his father died prematurely. He earned his college degree in the Army, sent his sister to college, and funded undergraduate and graduate education for my sister and me. He provided generously for our family of four and never took up expensive hobbies. A lifetime of looking his best down to his shoes helped him succeed in public life. A lifetime of wearing beat-up shoes at home enabled him to spend more money on loved ones. I came to understand that my father’s shoe practices, with the contradictions front and center, were manifestations of his deep values.
I still shine my leather shoes. The unmistakable smell of polish and the feel of soft cloths take me right back to my childhood. If I find myself in a jam, I spiff up my shoes with hand lotion and then buff them with facial tissues. I even spot-clean and snip threads off my sneakers. As for flip-flops, well, I only wear them for recreation. I do wear nice house slippers, unlike my father, because I enjoy pretty footwear at a day’s end. My yard boots for my regular garden work are another story, though – they are battered and ripped. I know I can get more wear out of them, however, so recently I patched them with duct tape.
Clorisa (Clo) Phillips is a writer and historian. She is retired from a long career in higher education, having had leadership roles in public, international, and private arenas. As of 2018, Clo is exploring her family’s rich stories and connecting them to broad forces and important moments in history, all in an effort to reveal facets of American life often overlooked or commonly unknown. A series of personal essays will lay the foundation for a longer work of non-fiction based on her father’s thirty-year career in the US Army. Her first essay was published in The Christian Science Monitor. Clo completed her undergraduate studies at the College of William & Mary before earning a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.
© 2021, Clorisa Phillips