A Good Sole

The grump who saved Christmas

town-cobbler-lead0418John Welsh calls himself a former Marine, a former mercenary, and a former cop. Now he’s The Town Cobbler in Williston who has collected Christmas toys for kids in need since his 20s.

by Phyl Newbeck

Once John Welsh starts talking, it’s hard to get him to stop. The longtime owner of The Town Cobbler in Williston has hundreds of stories to tell, and thanks to help from his two full-time and one part-time employees, he has the time to tell them. Welsh likes to show up at his shop around 9 a.m., armed with a cup of coffee. He stays until 2 p.m. or so, usually spending at least part of his afternoon at Village Wine and Coffee in Shelburne.

Welsh describes himself as a former Marine, a former mercenary, and a former cop, although he won’t elaborate on the middle piece of that resume. “My father had been in military,” Welsh says. “He was too old to be asked to serve in World War II but he went anyway. I came along and I was a piece of work so my mother thought sending me to school with the nuns would work, but I used to piss them off, too.”

In short order, Welsh was kicked out of St. Francis Xavier School, Winooski High School, and Cathedral High School (now Rice Memorial). He claims the only school he’s never been kicked out of was one he attended to become a certified orthopedic shoe technician in Canada.

After leaving high school he worked construction but enlisted when he was 17 and spent seven years in the Marine Corps. “I’ve been on 16 ships,” he says, “and I don’t need to go on another boat as long as I live.” Welsh enjoyed his days in the Corps, serving all over the world in places like Borneo, Cuba, Japan, and the Philippines. In Cuba, he says, he learned how to take entrenching tools to gently extricate the tarantulas that lived in the ammunition bunkers. “As long as you didn’t startle them you were fine,” he says.

While he was in the Marines he earned his GED, and took educational psychology courses at East Carolina University when he was stateside. He contemplated a career in that field, but on his return to Vermont he ran into Harold Tipson, a retired Air Force sergeant who suggested he join the Winooski Police Force.

Welsh made headlines in the mid-’60s for a high-speed chase and shootout involving Winooski and Burlington police, capturing the four men who had kidnapped local businessman Merle Wood’s housekeeper. When Shelburne started its own police force, Welsh was invited to join, and served for 17 years, working his way up the ranks. “I was acting chief but the politics got a little crazy,” he says. “The bad guys know the rules but the good guys keep changing them.”

While working for the Shelburne Police Department, Welsh began to repair shoes on the side. He knew John DePaul, a master cobbler in Winooski, and visited him in the mid-1970s. “I walked in one Friday night and offered to work for him for no money so he could show me the ropes,” Welsh says. “His wife figured I’d last two days but I was there for two years.”

With his newfound knowledge and connections, Welsh drove a Rice Lumber truck to Boston to purchase some used machines. He set up shop in his basement, repairing mostly women’s handbags, and put all the money he made into new equipment.

When he opened his first shop, on Shelburne Road, he was still working as a Shelburne police officer, averaging 55 hours a week for pay that he describes as “almost a joke.” He hired two boys from what was then called the Life Program at Champlain Valley Union High School for students who weren’t college-bound. They kept the shop running during the week, although Welsh later found out they were selling pot on the side.

His shop was open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., but the traffic on Shelburne Road was so heavy that nobody could enter his driveway during the evening commute. “I was going to close,” he says, “but I must have had hundreds of phone calls, mostly from women, who wanted me to stay in business.”

As part of his police training, Welsh had taken courses at The University of Vermont on topics that included traffic patterns, so he knew what he was looking for in a new location. Twenty years ago he found it at Taft Corners in Williston. Besides shoe repair, the business sharpens scissors and knives and repairs bags and clothing.

“I’ve been here ever since,” Welsh says. “I’ll die here. I have no intention of retiring.” Unfortunately, he has a number of medical issues. “I had an aneurysm that tried to kill me,” he says. “All the men on my mother’s side had them and died at work in their 40s. At 72, I’m the oldest living male in the family.”

Welsh was tickled to discover earlier this year that, in addition to being Irish on his father’s side and French-Canadian on his mother’s side, he is 6 percent Native American. He was amazed by the discovery, as for years, he has made what he refers to as “Canadian, American Indian, and Mountain Man reproductions” under the name Turtlehawk of Vermont. The name came to him in a vision while he was meditating, something he does on a daily basis.

He uses animal bones, feathers, beads, and other objects to create the pieces, which feature “barbed wire” made of leather, frames fashioned from 250-year-old Vermont barns, and antique brads. He has displayed some of his pieces at Village Wine and Coffee and even sold a few, but they are a labor of love, he says. Many of them fill the second bedroom in his Shelburne condo — what he calls “the spirit room” — and he has a collection gracing the walls of his small office at work.

He gave up his motorcycle due to injuries, but he still likes to ride around in his 2011 yellow Camaro convertible during the summer months.

Welsh’s ex-wife died in 2007 and his daughter followed in 2008. His son used to work with him and was going to take over the business, but he died from an overdose in 2013. Welsh has a sister in Arizona who has no interest in the shop, but he is hoping his employees will keep The Town Cobbler going after he’s gone.

Philip Messier has worked for Welsh for the last five years. He initially planned to stay for a couple of months but enjoyed the work. “He’s easy to work for,” Messier says of his boss. Welsh is old-school with no cell phone and no website for the business. “I’m comfortable with that because it’s how I started,” Messier says. His only worry is his boss’s health. “He’s taken good care of us,” he says.

Welsh has a gruff exterior but for over half a century he has collected and distributed toys for needy kids at Christmas. He started when he enlisted in the Marines, and when he returned from the service he joined locals Jerry Hatin, Clem Bissonnette, and the Winooski Jaycees in a program called Light a Light, Light a Heart.

In the 1990s he became involved with the Toys for Tots program, but says he had a falling-out with the national organization when it hired a man with two felony convictions who stole $3.5 million from the organization. When Welsh was told he had to send any money collected to Virginia if he wanted to use the Toys for Tots label, he needed only 48 hours to rebrand his organization Toys for Kids of Vermont.

“I had already registered the name, just in case,” he says. “The next year, Channel 5 became our partners.” He collects hundreds of barrels of toys for kids in need. “One of my volunteers calls me ‘the grump who saved Christmas,’” he says.

Bill Loney has volunteered with Welsh and Toys for Kids for at least three decades. “He and I belong to the same Marine Corps League,” Loney says, “and when I heard what he was doing I wanted to help.” Loney recognizes that Welsh likes to portray himself as a curmudgeon. “I think that’s a defense mechanism,” Loney says. “He’s got a heart about the size of his whole body.”

Welsh is less than pleased with changes in the shoe business. “This industry shot itself in the foot,” he says. “Back in the day, all shoes were leather and then they started making them out of plastic and vinyl and there were no cements to fix them. It took them a while to figure it out, but in the meantime, people started throwing shoes away instead of fixing them.”

Although he believes the current generation isn’t accustomed to having things repaired, he still has a steady stream of customers, including one woman who came in with a $1,200 pair of Jimmy Choo pumps and a man who brought in nine pairs of Aldens. When the soles wore out on one pair he would put them under his bed and buy another, but eventually his wife found his stash. The shoes cost $350 and Welsh was able to repair them for $72 a pair, saving the man $2,500 in new shoes.

According to Welsh there are only three cobblers in the entire state of Vermont. In addition to walk-ins, The Town Cobbler is the official repair department for Dansko shoes and has worked for a Canadian importer of Italian shoes. Welsh may spend less time at work, but it’s still a place where he’s comfortable, even as he confronts his own mortality.

“As we speak, I’m bleeding internally,” he says. “I’ve had two operations in the past year and neither one has worked, but I have a heart the size of a bull. I don’t have heart attacks; I cause them.” •