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Charles 'Butch' Craig, Baltimore bootblack for more than 70 years, dies

Charles "Butch" Craig, a Baltimore bootblack who kept the shoes of those from all walks of life gleaming with his signature high-buff shine for decades, died of respiratory failure March 3 at Northwest Hospital in Milford Mill.

He was 97.

"His life ambition was to be the best bootblack in the world," said a daughter, Barbara Craig, a former Baltimore social worker who now lives in Norfolk, Va.

"Through the years he met so many people — doctors, lawyers, bankers, judges, police officers, businessmen and stars — lots of people knew him, and he just loved them," said Ms. Craig, who is a retired assistant director of the Norfolk Department of Human Services.

"He didn't like the fact that people wear tennis shoes these days and not regular shoes. And I'd say, 'Daddy, when you get to heaven, you won't be able to shine Jesus' shoes because he wears sandals,'" she said with a laugh.

"Butch was just the best. He took a real professional approach to his job and took his time," said Joe Runge, an attorney with Miles & Stockbridge who was a longtime customer.

Charles Craig was born in Charlotte, N.C. In 1936, he moved to a home on Biddle Street with his mother, Lillian Craig, and an uncle.

While growing up in Charlotte, Mr. Craig took drum lessons from a man who worked as a bootblack.

When he arrived for his lesson, he would watch as the man put the final touches on several pairs of his customers' shoes with rhythmic snaps from a buffing rag.

"I saw this guy doing things with the rag that I would like to do with sticks on the drums," Mr. Craig told The Baltimore Sun in 2003.

"I remember going home and telling my mom I wanted to shine shoes. I think she thought I was crazy at first," he said.

The young Mr. Craig began his shoeshine business in 1927, charging 5 cents a shine. He also perfected the rag-snapping technique performed by his teacher.

Mr. Craig left school in the eighth grade. He acquired the nickname "Butch," which remained with him for the rest of his life, after he took on a schoolyard bully.

"Years ago, there was this tough guy, mean guy that everyone called Butch," he told The Sun. "After everybody saw me whip that bully, they started calling me Butch."

In 1938, Mr. Craig married Gertrude Crawley. She died in 1997.

During World War II, Mr. Craig served in the Navy as a cook.

After the war, he returned to Baltimore, where he resumed shining shoes and working odd jobs and in construction to make ends meet for his family of eight children.

He finally was able to get a one-chair stand and eventually a three-chair stand on Pennsylvania Avenue. He later had a three-chair stand at Fader's tobacco shop at 12 S. Calvert St.

"He was on Pennsylvania Avenue when Pennsylvania Avenue was Pennsylvania Avenue," said a nephew, James Craig of Baltimore. "He was shining the shoes of all the stars and celebrities who played in the theaters and clubs, before Pennsylvania Avenue was demolished. And he had autographed photographs to prove it."

"Yes, he was there in its heyday," his daughter said.

Mr. Craig once polished the shoes of Bernie Mac, and the comedian was so impressed with the results that he presented Mr. Craig a $50 tip, which the bootblack framed along with an autographed photo.

Mr. Craig always dressed in a trademark red vest with the words "Shoe Shine King" across the back.

"He used to wear bells on his wrists and ankles, tap his feet, make be-bop sounds with his mouth and snap the shoeshine rag to make a sound like a drumbeat. Getting shoes shined by Craig was like attending a 5-minute musical production," observed The Sun.

Mr. Craig's methods were simple. He used only Lincoln shoe wax, which he applied to shoes with his fingers. He eschewed sponges or rags to apply the wax.

And Mr. Craig provided his customers more than just a shoeshine.

"He always said that it was a good thing to be a good listener," his daughter said. "And he was a great storyteller."

"Butch was a real wise man who had insights into what was going on in the world," Mr. Runge said. "He was just a great guy."

Mr. Craig, who lived on Presstman Street, never learned to drive, and commuted to work by streetcar, buses and later on the Metro. In later years, he walked with the assistance of a cane.

"I remember how his family would help him up the stairs from the subway. They really kept him going," Mr. Runge said.

"He had a stool and cut the legs off of it when he knew he couldn't stand anymore so he could continue shining shoes," his daughter said.

Years of standing for work took a toll on his legs, and the onset of high blood pressure brought his lengthy career to a close when he was in his late 80s, family members said.

"I don't think he really ever wanted to retire, and I always thought even though he was in his 90s, that he wanted to still go back and shine shoes," his nephew said.

Funeral services for Mr. Craig will be held at noon Friday at the March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave.

In addition to his daughter and nephew, he is survived by two sons, Steven Craig and Gregory Craig, both of West Baltimore; another daughter, Debbie Craig of Owings Mills; 17 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.

He was predeceased by two sons, Charles B. Craig in 1999 and Reginald Craig in 2014; and by two daughters, Shirley Phillips and June Carey who both died in 2014.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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