- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) - This chair held the most important people.

It didn’t matter if they were famous actors or janitors, bank presidents or bank robbers, anyone who sat in this chair felt valued by the man who owned it and treated them each with care and respect.

This chair held Sammy Hudson’s customers. Anyone who needed a little sprucing up and an expert’s touch, and maybe a sympathetic ear, some lighthearted conversation and a laugh or wise advice to go along with a shoeshine would find it here.

Now, this chair holds dozens of bouquets of flowers, notes and mementos in tribute to the man who spent decades making people look and feel just a little bit better.

This chair held Sammy himself, who appeared to be taking a nap but had in fact died at his favorite place - at work - on May 19. As the lobby of the Alpine Bank building around him buzzed with people heading to the gym downstairs, to the teller line or offices upstairs, Sammy passed away doing what he loved most, being at his shoeshine station.

Those who loved him say they’ll miss having a bright spot in their day, a friend and an all-around classy guy. This side of the lobby feels a little bit emptier now without his smile.

Sammy started shining shoes in a train station in Chicago in 1949 and learned the family trade from his grandfather. He made his way to Colorado and ended up in Grand Junction more than 30 years ago, when he set up in the White Star Barber Shop. He worked in various places, eventually moving to the site of the DoubleTree Hotel and its various incarnations over the years. Sammy set up shop in the Alpine Bank building in 2009 and that’s where he spent the rest of his 70-year career in shining shoes.

Over the years, Sammy gained a loyal following that appreciated his skill, attention to detail and charming personality.

“He was really a people person,” said his daughter, Jade. “And his grandfather taught him it was mostly about the people.”

Sammy always said the shoe-shining business was 10 percent work and 90 percent of how he made the other person feel, an observation he adopted from his grandpa. Remembering first names was important. Reading people to know whether they wanted to talk or listen was important.

Just like a good bartender, he knew when to dispense sage advice, just general enough to apply to someone’s situation and just specific enough that the person knew he was listening and cared.

“He liked schmoozing,” said his wife, Rita, who had been married to him for 27 years. “I really think if it were a different lifetime for him, he could have been in politics.”

Politics and sports were two of Sammy’s favorite conversation topics for those who graced his chair.

Over the years, he shined shoes for all kinds, including the jet-setters in Aspen when he’d go up for the weekends to make money and sleep in the airports. One time, he unknowingly shined the shoes of a bank robber who paused to take advantage of his services before fleeing the cops. He was full of stories like this - meeting famous folks like Goldie Hawn and John Denver - and could regale listeners for hours.

No one could shine a shoe like Sammy, who used his hands to work the wax into the leather and buffing it to smooth perfection.

Bob Stevens got his first shine from Sammy at least 25 years ago, and after that, he didn’t want anyone else touching his shoes. One time, he was walking along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, wearing a pair of Tony Lama boots, when a guy propositioned him with a shoeshine. Stevens declined, telling him the only person he trusted with his boots was in Colorado.

The man gave Stevens a cocky grin and said, “I’ve been shining here on the streets of Chicago for 25 years, and there’s no one better.”

Stevens just smiled back and said, “The day you started, you were already 30 years behind Sammy.”

“No one did it better or with more class than Sammy,” he said.

Sometimes Sammy talked about how he missed driving his green 1995 Lincoln Towncar. He regretted selling it, though he gave up driving last year for health reasons.

Though he relied on rides from others or rode public transportation to get to the bank, Sammy never complained. He told Rita he loved riding the bus, and she knew it was because he loved talking to strangers. Eventually those strangers became friends, like everyone else.

Mark Gilfillan is going to miss his “second grandpa,” and treasures the last eight years of visits with Sammy. Gilfillan would come to work out at Crossroads Fitness at the bank before heading to work at the federal building, and would stop and have coffee and chat with Sammy on his way out if he wasn’t helping a customer. The routine often involved Gilfillan shimmying his hips and doing a silly dance as he approached the shoeshine stand, prompting Sammy to laugh, put down the newspaper and say, “Man, what’s happening?”

They talked about anything and everything, politics, race issues, big-picture kind of stuff, as well as the merits of Rita’s lasagna.

They had inside jokes and loved to make each other laugh.

The most recent hilarity came from the current political news related to Russian spying. Gilfillan would take a packet of sugar from the coffee station downstairs and bring it up to Sammy, hand him the token and whisper, “This is top secret information … can you get it to the Russians for me?” and they would both erupt in gales of laughter.

Among the bouquets of flowers left at Sammy’s shoeshine stand over the weekend sat a single sugar packet, placed by Gilfillan, one last joke shared with his friend.

They had talked about the possibility of retirement only a week earlier, and Sammy said he had no intention of retiring at 82.

“It wasn’t a job to him,” Gilfillan said. “He saw it as a public service, and he loved his work.”

Charlotte Reicks is going to miss celebrating her birthday this July with Sammy. They always celebrated together, since his was the day after hers, though he was a year older. Ever since they met eight years ago, they got balloons and took a photo together.

She’s grateful Sammy died peacefully and doing what he loved, not in a nursing home suffering like some of her other friends in terrible pain, bedridden.

Sammy’s family is also comforted that he died in his own chair. It’s fitting, really, for a man who loved his work so much, and for a man who dealt with death as gracefully as he did with life.

“He died very easily,” Rita said. “I’m glad that Sammy was able to do exactly that, the very last minute of his life.”

___

Information from: The Daily Sentinel, https://www.gjsentinel.com


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