Naval Academy cobbler retires after more than 50 years fixing midshipmen’s shoes

Ronald Smith has one more job to complete at the Naval Academy.

He hung up his cobbling equipment. He helped his final midshipman. He has no more shoes to be polished, fixed or laced.ADVERTISING

After 53 years at the Naval Academy, the last thing Smith needs to do is say goodbye.

Smith’s cobbling career began in 1954 when he went to school to learn the trade. He worked some local jobs before a friend told him about an opening at the Naval Academy in 1967.

“And I’ve been here ever since,” Smith said.

While Smith spent a majority of his time as a cobbler, he jumped around a few other supervisory roles in different departments, as well, including in the laundry department.

With 53 years at the academy, Smith has seen a lot of midshipmen and a lot of shoes. Although the cobblers at the academy work with midshipmen shoes, they also care for ones brought in by professors, staff and alumni, he said.

He watched changes to the academy, including new buildings. If a new building went up, he figured he still had a steady job, he said.

And there have been changes in how midshipmen care for their shoes.

Cobbler Ron Smith is retiring after 53 years working at the Naval Academy.
Cobbler Ron Smith is retiring after 53 years working at the Naval Academy. (Kenneth D Aston Jr/US Naval Photographer Kenneth D)

He remembers midshipmen who would bring shoes covered by socks because they were afraid the cobblers would mess up the shine, he said. Now, midshipmen shine their shoes less. They’ll also bring shoes down with the backs broken, which tells Smith that they did not follow a cardinal piece of cobbler advice.

“I tell them, you unlace your shoes and shine your shoes,” Smith said. “That’s the life of the shoe. The shoe will last you for years.”

Unlacing shoes while shining them and putting them on and off is a piece of advice that Smith said he hopes the midshipmen, current and former, follow. The cobblers will fix the shoes, but unlacing them will extend the lifespan.

“And it’s not hard,” Smith said. “All they have to do is keep them untied.”

Replacing a back that looks like a slipper can be challenging, and in most cases require replacing the heel, he said.

While at the academy, Smith took time to teach midshipmen to care for their shoes, said Debbie Firlie, midshipmen services administration assistant. Firlie worked with Smith for 22 years, she said.

When the midshipmen have questions about their shoes or how to care for them, they could go to Smith, who would instruct them on good shoe care. His favorite part was working with the plebes during Plebe Summer, when he got to have one-on-ones with each when they were fitted for shoes, she said.

Smith is like family, she said, and she will miss his smiling face every morning.

“I’m going to miss him,” she said. “He’s always got a smile.”

Smith is passionate about his job, as well as dedicated. He is also a wealth of knowledge about cobbling. Though she is sad to see him go, Firlie said she hopes Smith enjoys his retirement and his new life chapter.

No one can replace Smith, she said, but he leaves the cobbler shop in the capable hands of Carlos Eldridge, who has been there for about five years. Eldridge has been able to learn from Smith during their years at the academy together, Firlie said, but Eldridge also came from a cobbling family and with his own experience.

Smith has no qualms about leaving the cobbling to his former coworker.

“I hope he survives [as the lone cobbler],” Smith said. “I know he will because he is a good cobbler. All they need is a little help there. And he’s capable of being the leader of the shop.”

Smith will miss the people, he said. They’re like a second family.

He plans to take time to rest now that he has more free time on his hands. His wife, Sharon, still works so he will have the house to himself. He might travel, if his wife wants to. And since he lives by the academy, he might take time to walk the Yard, when it is open to the public.

He has no plans to do more cobbling, even as a hobby. It’s taken a toll on his lower back, he said.

As he bids the academy farewell, he offers midshipmen the following advice. Keep the shoes clean and keep them unlaced.

Cobbler Ron Smith is retiring after 53 years working at the Naval Academy.
Cobbler Ron Smith is retiring after 53 years working at the Naval Academy. (Courtesy of Naval Academy)

Heather MongilioCONTACT 

Heather Mongilio is the Report For America corps member with the Capital Gazette, where she covers military affairs. Mongilio previously reported at The Frederick News-Post and the Carroll County Times. She earned a master’s degree in science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree from American University.