James Monroe Powell, a cheerful man with a tireless work ethic who shined shoes for bigwigs at the state Capitol for half a century, died Sept. 7, his family said. He was 98.
Born into a family of 17 children in rural Alabama, Mr. Powell was no stranger to hard times and hard work. With a wife and three children but few opportunities for African Americans in the Jim Crow era, he scrambled for work in the South before taking a train to Seattle. He worked as a butler on the railroad and settled in Sacramento, where farm fields reminded him of home.
He picked vegetables, earned enough money to buy a used Buick and started shining shoes in West Sacramento in the 1940s. He moved his operation across the Tower Bridge to Old Sacramento and the Capitol, eventually setting up his own shop near Eighth and L streets.
With a quick wit, ready smile and fancy handwork, he was well-known in the halls of power to a loyal clientele of state workers, journalists, lobbyists and famous political figures, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Honig and B.T. Collins. He talked sports with men, teased and flirted with women, and charmed everyone with songs and stories while waxing, buffing and polishing wingtips, cowboy boots and high heels.
“A lot of people would bring their shoes to him in his shop, and he’d have his rag in one hand and a brush in the other moving to music,” his daughter Barbara Sherman said. “He was always smiling and hugging people. He liked to make everybody feel good and their feet look good and feel happy.”
Mr. Powell retired in the 1990s. He lived in Jackson after spending 45 years in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood.
“He saw a lot of changes” in Sacramento, his son James Jr. said. “He saw dirt roads get paved and lots of new buildings. He used to take me to Old Sacramento and show me where all the saloons used to be.”
The son of a carpenter and a homemaker, Mr. Powell was born in 1915. He married his wife Viola in 1936 and had three sons before the marriage ended when he left for Tennessee to find work. He unloaded buses, shined shoes and took other manual jobs to support the family.
He married his second wife, Ernestine, in Sacramento. They had four children and also raised her son from a previous marriage.
A former arm-wrestling champ with bulging biceps, Mr. Powell walked with two canes in later years and suffered from an ulcer, high blood pressure, arthritis and other ailments before he met Marline Balbach, a nutrition consultant who opened a vegan restaurant near his shoe-shine business in 1984.
She persuaded him to stop eating meals high in fat and sugar and to switch to grains, vegetables and natural herbs and vitamins. His health improved, he stopped using a cane and he adopted the natural diet and health practices of the Seventh-Day Adventist Reform Church.
After several months on his new diet, “He called Marline up and said, ‘Marline, I think I’m dying,’ ” Sherman said. “She said, ‘Tell me what’s going on,’ and he said, ‘I woke up this morning for the first time without any pain. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.’”
Mr. Powell’s wife died in the 1980s. In addition to his daughter and James Jr., he is survived by another son, Douglas; a sister Lavinia Howard; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. A memorial service was held Sept. 14.