- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

AUSTIN, Texas Some just send in their sizes. Others stand to be measured. But every president since Millard Fillmore in 1850 has received a pair of handmade shoes from Johnston & Murphy as an inaugural gift.

George W. Bush, who has been more concerned with filling his Cabinet than his closet, hasn't sent in his specifications yet. But when he gets around to it, he will be treated to a pair of custom shoes that will take 14 working days to create. One of the last companies to offer a line of handcrafted footwear, Johnston & Murphy charges up to $3,000 a pair for the one-of-a-kind shoes.

"It's really a dying art," says master cobbler Raymond Robinson, who has been with the company since the Kennedy administration. "It's a very slow, very time-consuming process. I could make a pair of shoes in two to three days if I wanted to, but you can't rush it if you want it to be right."

The company follows 165 steps to create each pair, from selecting the leathers and storing them in a controlled environment of 65 percent humidity to creating a "last" (the foot-shaped form that shapes the leather) to filling the space between the insole and outsole with a ground cork measure.

The 59-year-old Tennessee native tried to pass the tradition on to his eldest son, but junior quickly lost interest and eventually opted for the life of a state trooper.

When the firm was established in 1850, practically all shoes were made by hand. The company, which operates 98 retail stores for its high-end machine-made line, was founded in Newark, N.J., by an English immigrant named William J. Dudley. He decided, as a gesture of good will, to make a pair of shoes for Mr. Fillmore, and a tradition was born.

When Dudley died in 1882, his partner, James Johnston, teamed with William H. Murphy, and the pair named the company after themselves. The headquarters moved to Nashville, Tenn., in 1957.

Mr. Robinson, who grew up on a farm outside Nashville, had no intention of becoming a master craftsman when he was hired by J&M; in 1961. "I was just looking for work, any kind of work, and I ended up getting a job on the assembly line," he says.

After Mr. Robinson moved into the stitching section, his attention to detail caught the eye of chief cobbler Domenick DiMeola, who started making shoes at age 6 in his native Italy. Mr. DiMeola tapped Mr. Robinson as his apprentice, and the two worked side by side for almost 35 years, until the mentor retired in 1998.

It's a demanding task that attracts demanding customers, and no president was more particular about his footwear than Lyndon B. Johnson. He took up Johnston & Murphy's offer for a personal fitting because his left foot was size 11C, while his right was a half size larger. He also had a delicate foot, according to Mr. Robinson.

"Everything had to be soft, even the soles," Mr. Robinson says. "President Johnson could've folded up his shoes and carried them in his pocket that's how soft they were."

If presidents acted their shoe size instead of their age, the most mature would have been Abraham Lincoln, who wore a size 14. Rutherford B. Hayes, meanwhile, created the lightest patter when he paced the Oval Office in his size 7s.

The presidents-elect have a catalog of styles from which to choose, but Mr. Robinson says the most popular choice is the black cap-toed dress shoe. "I expect the president-elect will want that style," says Mr. Robinson. "That's the kind I made for his dad."

Several presidents opted for more casual styles, including Bill Clinton's size-13 blue-suede shoes, Gerald Ford's chukka boots and Woodrow Wilson's white bucks.

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