R is for Ralph

Writing has never been work for me because I enjoy it so much, and had great English, French and Latin teachers in high school who also made it easy to expand my vocabulary and know the meanings of so many words.

But the greatest joy in writing is when it brings pleasure, happy memories, or enables a person or family to be able to take some pride in others know some of the special things about someone special in their own family. That's why features stories on people have always been my favorite kind of writing.

That's also why The ABCs of Highands was such an easy book to write because it's simply telling stories about some pretty terrific people. I found people like reading nice stories about nice people and many called, wrote, or e-mailed me to let me know their favorites.

Certainly one of the most popular of all the people in that book is Ralph the Shoemaker.

Whether people knew Ralph well or just because they dropped a pair of shoes off to be repaired, polished, or given new life at the hands of a master craftsman, everyone felt a little better about himself and about life, because of the few minutes he may have spent with Ralph. So just to make everyone feel a little better in this rainy weather, just to let somebody feel a little better about himself and perhaps get a warm, fuzzy feeling from a happy memory because of meeting Ralph, I'm including one of the stories from by book: R is for Ralph.

More than a Shoemaker or Cobbler

He wasn’t involved in politics. He did not teach in the school nor preach in the churches. He didn’t hold a big professional job or have a lot of money. He did serve in the military and was a member of American Legion Post 143. And when his son was in Boy Scouts, he went to all the parent meetings, shared all the work of merit badges and played an important role in the scouting family.

But none of these things mattered to the people who met him. It was how Ralph the Shoemaker made you feel that you remember.

Ralph Carone was simply the kind of person who touched everyone’s lives and made each a little better for having known him.

The Brooklyn-born shoemaker had his shop at 228 Bay Avenue. Actually, it was more a hospital where everything from boots and shoes to baseball mitts, belts, purses and gloves were lovingly and tenderly patched, sewn, polished, remade or given a new life for the owner.

Oh, and Ralph was so good at his trade! He would look at that worn-out, unpolished, scraped up pair of shoes, hold one in his hand, push back a little on those eyeglasses teetering at the end of his nose and smile, look up and say, “sure, these aren’t bad. They just need a little help. I’ll have it done tomorrow… tomorrow, unless you’re in a hurry?” He’d just stand there, perhaps wipe his hand on that dye and polish stained apron, smile that soft smile that let you know he was a man you could trust, no matter what. And if you took too long to answer, he’d add, “well, if you need it today, we can do it right now.”

Ralph the Shoemaker was a craftsman beyond compare. But more importantly, he was the soft leather that soothed souls, the warm smile that brought comfort, the good friend to all who was as comfortable as an old slipper.

Ralph learned his trade from his Italian family and first worked at his first shop in Highlands on Valley Street. He married Dorothy Perry, former wife of Burt Perry from the merry-go-round ownership and raised her son Arnold as well as the two youngsters, Kathy and Bob, whom he and Dorothy had during their long and happy marriage.

Best known for his quiet manner and ready smile by generations who depended on the cobbler’s expertise, Ralph set up his crowded, messy-appearing and sweet smelling shop three steps down from the screen door leading to the couple’s home at the back of the shop. It was set with his sewing machine at the front window just to the right of the door from street side, so he could look up and wave to every passing kid, smile at the baby in every baby carriage and greet every walker who passed by with a smile and a soft hello. Everyone knew his stool as well. It was always right there, ready for him to sit down at that front window.

Behind the sewing machine at the window and the stool, there was Ralph’s workbench, his tools scattered but apparently precisely where he wanted or needed them, a little cash register where he always seemed to have the right change, a rag to wipe his hands before he picked up the shoes you ordered for repair, and pieces of leather, laces and other accoutrements of the trade. On the other side of the tiny shop, with a small aisle in-between where customers could walk in, or Dorothy could step out the family home door to say hello, were the racks and racks of shoes, boots and everything else made of leather. All repaired, all neatly aligned, all ready for pick-up by another satisfied customer.

What was missing were receipts. Tickets. Little pieces of paper that identified a particular pair of shoes as belonging to a particular customer. There was no need for that kind of fluff. Ralph Carone knew every customer and every leather or leather-like item that was brought in by that customer for repair.

Even families like the Dempseys and Ptaks, with ten or more kids in the group, knew that Ralph Carone not only knew which family brought in the shoes for repair, but which youngster in that family owned them! Soldiers stationed at Fort Hancock or airmen on the former Air Force Base on the hill knew that if they were transferred or called to duty before picking up a pair of shoes they left for repair at Ralph’s, they would be right there when they came back months or years later. And Ralph would remember the soldier who left them and tell him how happy he was he made it back home.

The kids in town remember how they could bring a beat-up, ragged, or old hand-me-down baseball glove and Ralph the Shoemaker would make it perfect. The teenage girl knew he would have that broken heel on her highest heel repaired in plenty of time for that night’s special dance or date.

The smell of the shop stayed with everyone! There’s something about worn leather, fresh polish, a coat of wax and a smiling shoemaker that seemed to melt away every problem, end every worry, and for just those few minutes, allow a visitor to feel cozy and comfortable. Ralph Carone, Ralph the Shoemaker, had the knack for fixing broken hearts and leathered souls as well as shoes.

There were the regulars who simply stopped for conversation with Ralph. His close group of friends must have resolved every problem in the world during those afternoon chats he shared while continuing his work. There were the more affluent people from “up North” who would come down for a visit or a weekend, and bring their supply of fancy shoes for Ralph, because nobody in the big city seemed to be able to do the job as well.

It is difficult to say how Ralph made a living for his family, though it was obvious they were well loved and well cared for, wanting nothing. Because for the customer nothing ever seemed to cost more than a quarter or fifty cents.

The Reverend Martin McGrail, who grew up in the town, went off to the Navy, came home and later founded a ministry where he could stay in town and administer to its people, remembers a time when he was a kid. It was the 1960s and cleats on shoes were “what the cool guys wore.” Marty wanted to be one of the cool guys like Johnny Marconi and his older cousins. So one day Marty took two soda bottles back to the store, got his ten cents deposit for them, then went to see Ralph. The shoemaker knew exactly what Marty wanted, and knew he wanted to be man enough to pay for it himself. So Ralph the Shoemaker took the kid’s ten cents and put cleats on his shoes. The young preacher was beside himself with joy and happiness worth far more than the dime Ralph had reluctantly taken from him for the job. The euphoria lasted, as Marty once said, “until I got home and my mother removed them saying, ‘No cool cats in my house!’ “ But Ralph the Shoemaker gave a kid a memory that lasts a lifetime.

Karen Mount Tailor, another native who stayed on to become a borough clerk in the 1980s, remembers mostly Ralph’s soft-spoken manner and great smile, as if he were always happy. She and Ralph and Dorothy’s daughter Kathy would walk to school together every day, and Karen looked forward to starting each morning stopping to meet Kathy and Ralph wishing them both a good day. Stories that are never forgotten.

Even those who didn’t grow up with Ralph fixing everything leather for the entire family, Ralph the Shoemaker was a master shoemaker. Ted Jasper, a police officer, remembers Ralph as the go-to guy for everything leather because “this guy could sure work miracles with rawhide.” Another unforgettable memory.

Few even remember Ralph and Dorothy taking a vacation or holiday. The shop was simply always there, that comfortable spot where you could walk in with a greeting to share or a pair of boots to be fixed. Where you could find that old pair of shoes you dropped off a couple of months ago still sitting there, now shiny, clean and fixed, just waiting for you to come pick them up. Dorothy was there often sweeping up the dirt from shoppers and the dust from the shoes, and Ralph was on his bench sewing and smiling. Some do recall one week back around 1985 when the Closed sign was up on the door for a week.

Ralph Carone died in 1996, after working in his shop for 60 years. But to the locals, there aren’t many who cannot still imagine the aroma of the strong sweet smell of newly polished leather, see an old sewing machine or hear the whir of its motor without smiling a bit and remembering a time a long time ago when Ralph the Shoemaker gave new life to more than run down heels or tired soles.

EDITORS NOTE: If you're interested in purchasing a copy of The ABCs of Highlands, and reading more stories about the People, Places and Things that made Highlands great, go to Book Sales


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