Death of ‘Shoeshine Willie’ leaves a void in Ocean Beach
For a half-century, Willie Washington was a fixture in the community.
William Washington, aka “Shoeshine Willie,” a beloved character of Ocean Beach, is being mourned by former customers, friends and generations of families whose lives he touched.
The cheerful presence who would yell greetings to passersby reportedly died in his sleep early Jan. 22. He was 83.
For nearly 50 years, he was an Ocean Beach fixture, repairing and polishing shoes and dispensing friendly advice to parents, children and teenagers. His shoeshine business moved around, but for the past two decades, it was anchored in the parking lot of Mallory’s New Furniture store at 4905 Newport Ave.
The kiosk he used as Willie’s Shoe Shine shop blossomed into a makeshift memorial following news of his death. Flowers left around it sprouted from an orange pylon, were tucked in a ladder and wedged in a sandwich board traffic sign.
A man’s loafer was turned into a planter with the message “R.I.P. Willie” painted down the toe. A seashell was inscribed with the remembrance “OB ❤️s you, Willie.” A bouquet carried the sentiment “Thanks for all the sweet memories.” A flowerpot held an American flag and a message on a stick: “God bless, Willie.”
“We had grown very close. I thought of him as a big brother,” Michael Haas, Washington’s longtime landlord and friend, stated on the Social Ocean Beach Facebook page where he and others spoke of Washington’s passing.
“He made life better for thousands of people ... always there to talk or give some advice. He just loved being there for others,” Haas wrote.
He and Stephanie Krause, a longtime friend of Washington’s, welcomed donations to help with cremation costs, noting that any excess money would go to a military veterans charity in Washington’s memory. There would be no funeral service or celebration of life, they posted. Washington hadn’t wanted a fuss made over his passing.
In February 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, Washington temporarily closed his business. Then, last November, he made his retirement official and removed his belongings from the shoeshine shed.
For decades, Willie Washington dispensed shoeshines and advice on Newport Avenue.
He returned to the public eye to ride in the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade on Dec. 4. “He wanted to see the people of OB one last time,” said Krause, who helped look after him.
In late December, Washington was hospitalized, then spent a couple of weeks in a nursing care facility. He returned to his apartment in Ocean Beach about a week before he died, Krause said.
Little seems to be known about Washington’s early life. He moved to San Diego from Texas when he was 17 and later enlisted in the military.
“We both went into the Marine Corps in 1957 and spent 16 weeks together in boot camp,” recalled Steve Aldridge. They became close during their training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
“My mom was a longtime resident of OB,” Aldridge added. “She used to walk along Newport Avenue and always stopped and talked to Willie. He called her ‘Mama.’ She remembered him in her will and left him some money. He was a well-liked guy.”
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Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, remembers Washington repairing shoes in the mid-1970s on Newport Avenue.
Furniture store owner Teresa Mallory said Washington was operating out of the store parking lot when she and her husband opened for business there 20 years ago. His shop remained in the lot for a symbolic lease fee of $1 a month.
“He was always friendly to anyone who walked by, but he didn’t talk much about himself,” Mallory said.
When Washington’s shoeshine shed was damaged by a fire several years ago, members of the Ocean Beach community banded together and rebuilt it for him.
Jim Musgrove, president of The Peninsula Alliance, said there are plans to include a plaque honoring Washington at OB’s Veterans Plaza at the foot of Newport Avenue by the beach.
“I’ve known Willie for years. He was a super nice guy,” Musgrove said.
Artist Amberle Neel posted a note on Facebook offering to organize local artists in painting a mural on an Ocean Beach building in memory of Washington. “It’s generated a lot of interest,” she said. She added that she is looking for a suitable location.
Washington is survived by a sister and some extended-family members, Krause said.
As for his shoeshine shed, it will stay put for now. Mallory said no plans have been made to remove it.
Washington has left something else behind. His well-worn shoeshine chair sits in Mallory’s New Furniture. The elevated oak chair with its foot-shaped brass shoe rests includes a drawer that still contains a shoe brush and polishing cloths.