A Life Crafted from Faith, Family and Friends

by | Jun 1, 2009 | Features

Story by Dianne Edwards

Seldom does a day pass in the life of Don Pennington that a friend, acquaintance or someone from his past walks back into his life. Sometimes they are bringing in a favorite pair of boots needing soles and heels, occasionally a treasured baseball mitt which needs restringing, but often it’s leather saddle in need of repair.
Regardless of what item a customer brings in to Don for leather repair, the long-time Russellville resident greets them with a friendly gesture.
His Horseshoe-style moustache and slightly weathered expression give way to bright eyes and a broad friendly smile. Those who first meet Don are taken with his strong hands and gentle ways. He is immediately likeable.
Leather repair runs deep in his veins. Don’s father, F.L. Pennington, purchased Harkey Brothers Saddle and Harness Shop from its previous owners, the McCutcheons, in 1954. The shop had been located in downtown Russellville since the early 1900s. Don’s father, F.L. Pennington bought the shop and it was there that he and his nine siblings spent much of their time.
Don recalled his early days when, at age six, he first learned to nail heels on shoes while standing on two Dr. Pepper crates just so he could reach the counter. That was 1960.
He learned from his father, who had been taught shoe repair from the McCutcheons.
Six brothers and three sisters spent their days in and out of the business but only Don and a couple of his brothers focused on the shop.

“I worked there after school and during the summers,” Don remembered. “I didn’t know about cartoons until I was 17,” he half-joked.
“And when my father bought the business, the ‘shoe shine man’ and his stand came right along, too,” Don explained. “Ruben Pope, known by thousands as the ‘shoe shine man’ quickly became one of our family.”
Ruben was a member of the family, recalled Don fondly. He took my brothers and I once to a St. Louis Cardinal game. He was just a part of our family,” said Don.
Family patriarch F.L. pulled Ruben close to him as the senior Pennington lay on his deathbed. He died at age 54 when Don was just 17.
“Take care of my kids, Ruben,” he pleaded. And, until Ruben’s death in 1989, “the shoe shine” man always had a place in the Pennington family.
He worked alongside Ruben and others, including Hamp Bata, who was in his early 80s when Don first met him.
“Hamp was a deaf mute who kinda ‘came and went’ at the shop when we needed extra help,” Don explained. “I remember him first when I was about 8 years old. Recently, a gentleman came into Woody’s. He was about 75 years old, from Dardanelle. We began talking and he told me that Hamp was his grandfather. I’m always meeting folks like that – a lifetime of friends.”
Don purchased Pennington’s Boot and Shoe store from his mother in 1974. When the store burned to the ground in 1982, everything in the store was a total loss – except Ruben’s shoe shine stand.
“And I mean everything,” Don added, “burned to the ground, on both sides of Ruben’s stand. The only thing that was damaged on the stand was one arm, which was slightly singed.”
A talented wood-crafting friend duplicated the chair arm and to this day, even Don can barely detect which of the four are not original.

Pennington’s took another hit in July of 1993 when the business flooded. Life continued on and the business relocated to a building on South Arkansas where it remained until Don decided to ‘retire’ at age 50 and go back to school.
A graduate of Russellville High School, Don attended Arkansas Tech for three years, studying medicine at one point, later developing an interest in education. He still takes an occasional class and is a lifetime learner.
Don celebrated a half-century of life in 2004, the same year that he closed his own family-owned business on South Arkansas Ave.
A request from long-time friend and classmate, Linda Chance, brought Don back into the leather-repair business again. Linda had purchased Woody’s Boot and Shoe Shop from Rick and Ramona Woods, leaving the store without a shoe repairman. She asked Don to help out part time. That lasted only briefly as Don quickly returned full time to the work he enjoyed. Don now works for the store’s current owner, Vonna Titus, five days a week from 8-5.
Working in what he refers to as “organized chaos,” Don chuckles when he recalls how Vonna – who worked previously for Linda Chance — helped clean up his shop one day before the business moved next door to its present location.
“She was really ‘helping’ me by cleaning out the shop, or so she and Linda thought. When I came back in and saw what they had done, I headed out back to the dumpster. Crawling in, I began to reclaim what they had tossed, thinking it was garbage. I dug out pieces of leather and supplies amounting to about $300-$400,” he laughed.
Pulling out a package of machine needles, Don relates how much the pricing has increased over the years.

“For instance, this heavy-duty machine ‘jerk’ needle – I recently had to give $42 for a package of 10 needles. They’ll probably last just more than a year… A pound of brass shoe tacks is $20. And, I have about 50 different types of nails.”
Repairs are priced according to what is required to fix the item, and when an item is non-repairable, Don will tell the customer.
“I told folks months ago that we were coming into an economic recession,” Don said. “Why? Because of the items being brought in for repair. People are asking to have repaired items that they ordinarily will throw away.”
His clientele is both men and women and about half or more are return customers. Don said that ten years ago, there were local four boot and shoe stores with seven repairmen. Now, he believes he is the only one between Conway and Fort Smith, so he stays very busy.

While the principles of shoe repair remain the same, the materials and manufacturing techniques change.
“You figure things out and of course, they change them,” he chuckled. “There are new adhesives, and the plastics… uhh.”
Don agrees there is a misconception that only leather shoes can be repaired, “but that’s not true. There are things that we can do with the new adhesives and materials. Primarily I replace soles and heels on shoes and boots.”
Pointing to a ’to do’ shelf, he shows what is waiting to be fixed, not counting what are in the works in his repair shop. There are a number of purses, and Don says that out of the 1,000 of supposedly designer pieces he has repaired only a handful were truly originals.
“The rest are fakes – good fakes, but still fakes and the owners never knew,” he adds.
A miniature orange safety cone sits atop the swing door entering his shop. It bears the words, “Enter at Your Own Risk.” Again, he chuckles.
Though his laugh seems to come easy to those first meet him, long-time friends know otherwise.
This soft-spoken man could have turned bitter when life began handing him a running set of tragedies. He says he knows the value of a friend, and why he has accumulated a multitude of folks who have befriended him throughout his lifetime.
And, he attributes those friendships as the reason he’s survived more than his share of hurt.
“They’ve saved me,” he said, fondly.
He lost his dad at an early age, and two brothers, to heart disease. His baby granddaughter, Nakia, was murdered at 23 months of age – her abusive death attributed to the hands of her own father. The following year, while Don and his wife B.J. struggled to keep their failing marriage together, she was diagnosed with stage- four cancer throughout her body. The illness reunited the couple but B.J. succumbed within the year. Then, in May 2007, their daughter Brittany, mother of Nakia, died in a tragic car wreck.

He could have given up and perhaps would have had it not been for the love of friends and family.
Don describes what he refers to as ‘meeting the Devil in a dream.’ It was shortly after that nightmare that he began attending the local non-denominational church, known as the Refuge, where he has attended the last two years.
The Shack, a fictional story of family loss and unfailing love, by William P. Young, was recommended reading by Don’s pastor. He knew I was struggling and thought it would be a good read.
“I’m living the non-fictional version of this fictional book,” Don explained.
He’s had brushes with the law – sort of. A fit Don threw in his store one day eventually found him in court.
“I never, ever lost my temper while a customer was in the store,” Don recalled. “It was just something I didn’t do. But one day, I was having a really tough time so I began cursing, yelling, even throwing a hammer.”
“Two men and a woman had come into the store, looking around. After I threw my fit, they left. Later I learned that one of the trio was Dobie Tester, a young man who left my shop and went next to the home of his parents, whom he murdered right after,” he recalled.
“The woman with them turned state’s evidence and testified that they had intended to rob me that day. Asked why they didn’t, she replied, ‘that crazy, bald-headed guy was yelling, throwing a hammer around – we left.”
“That fit — the only one I’ve ever thrown in the store — probably saved my life,” Don said, reflectively.

Don has crossed paths with Bill Clinton, Orval Faubus, Dale Bumpers and Win Rockefeller, “in the old days when politicians went downtown, going door to door meeting people.
He’s repaired the shoes for two Miss Americas, four Miss Arkansas winners and Miss Missouri. He’s added height to shoes to make them appear taller during competition.
Don has made boots for a dog – a Great Dane owned by former Arkansas Tech president Dr. Kenneth Kersh. The dog grew too fast, leaving his foot pads susceptible to tearing. He traced the dog’s footprint and made four boots – “pouches really” – that the dog could wear until his feet healed.
He’s made hard-to-find pony saddles which he and wife B.J. sold on Ebay.
He met his late wife, B.J., at the Road Runner Convenience Store, where he often stopped in to purchase two of his worst vices – pickles and a Dr. Pepper – when he was out of school.
It was B.J. who bought Don his first banjo, which he says is just a hobby. He does however, taken guitar lessons with the hopes of one day being good enough to play with others.
“I’m not a serious banjo player. I just ‘fiddle’ with it,” he added, chuckling.
Don made a pony saddle and a pair of chaps worn by the Sesame Street character Elmo in a western movie filmed by Jim Henson, creator of the Muppet characters.
“I asked B.J. to find out who, from Mahattan, N.Y., would be ordering a pony saddle from our online store on Ebay. The director from Jim Henson Enterprises ordered a pony saddle on line for Elmo to ride upon in the movie. So, I called and asked them to send me Elmo’s pant size and offered to make him a set of leather chaps to wear, as well.”

Don kept a second pair which was autographed by the Elmo staff along with a letter of thanks sent to he and B.J. from the show’s creators.
He spends free time with daughter Kortne and her children Cory, 12, and Carleigh, 5; and daughter Kaylee, and her daughters Addie, 3, and Sadie, 2. He really enjoys fishing with the grandkids, he says, and he still enjoys coming to work each day.
“I still love my job, and I’m blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who have saved me. For me, my life’s story is all about ‘faith, family and friends.’”


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