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Orthopedic shoemaker gets business on its feet

Robert Hutton Jr. can help the lame walk, his customers say.

They come to him limping from maladies like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. Then they strap Hutton's creations to their feet and walk out in a little less pain and with their heads held a little higher.

Hutton, 25, is an orthopedic shoemaker of the old-fashioned sort. Given time, some leather and a few other simple tools, he can create a pair of shoes to exactly fit a person's foot _ even if that person has flat arches, collapsed ankles, or no toes.

"Basically, I can do anything with a shoe," he said.

Hutton also learned his art the old-fashioned way: as an apprentice.

He worked at shoe shops repairing shoes during his high school years. Then, at 17, he met Franz Schuh. Schuh owned Orthopedic Shoe Center in Holiday and was looking for someone to learn his craft and then buy his business.

Hutton took Schuh up on his offer. For 13 months he trained at Schuh's side, listening to the old stories about how Schuh learned his craft in the Black Forest of Germany.

"For two months he wouldn't let me touch anything," Hutton said.

Schuh made him watch, listen, and practice cutting straight lines and skiving _ using a knife to shave the leather thinner in spots so it can be folded and sewn.

At 19, Hutton was finished with his apprenticeship and bought the business from Schuh. Since then he has stayed busy. Recently, he moved from a shop he shared with a shoe repairman on Ridge Road to a shop of his own on State Road 54.

"I am usually backed up by 24 pair," Hutton said.

He gets referrals from all over the country, he said.

The cost is about $450 for a pair of "molded" shoes, made from a plaster cast of a person's foot and ankle, to $650-plus for a custom shoe, crafted around a last _ a wooden model of the person's foot.

It takes about 18 hours to make a pair of molded shoes and 24 to 32 hours for a pair of custom ones, he said.

It's worth it, said customer Patricia Matheny of Tarpon Springs.

"I would be miserable without them (the shoes)," the retired hospital pharmacist said. "I don't even want to think about what I would have to do."

Mrs. Matheny used to have her shoes made by Hutton's teacher and was glad when Hutton came on as his apprentice so she would be guaranteed such services for years to come.

And Hutton is good at making her shoes attractive as well as functional, she said.

Others have similar tales to tell of Hutton's abilities.

"You can't say enough good things about him," said Lowell Greene, an Orlando-area businessman whose rheumatoid arthritis has distorted his feet.

"My feet look like crab claws," he said. "I was getting to the point where I couldn't walk, and I couldn't wear store-bought or orthopedic shoes that were mass- produced. I was in agony. I was looking for a solution."

Then, about three years ago, he heard about Schuh, Hutton's teacher. In the meantime, Hutton had bought Schuh's business, he said.

"I was very, very concerned, frankly, with Robert's age," Greene said. "He was very, very young. I just didn't know if he could help me."

But he hired Hutton to make two pairs of custom shoes _ one for work and one for leisure. Then he went to pick them up.

"When I put them on, I really had tears in my eyes," he said. "I was really upset."

The shoes were not as attractive as he would have liked.

"I got some advice from him that normally would have come from a much older person. He told me, "I didn't make these for your head. I made these for your feet.'

"That snapped me out of it," Greene remembered.

Now he loves the shoes Hutton made him and has ordered two more pairs.

He even wore them on a safari in Africa.

"And they got me through with flying colors," he said.

It is always a challenge to try to make functional shoes as attractive as possible, Hutton said.

"That is the problem I have with every foot," he said. "At least I try to give my customers some style. Putting an ugly shoe on an ugly foot only makes it worse."

But it's not possible every time.

"If it (the foot) doesn't look like a foot, how can I make a shoe to look like a foot?" he asked.

Some of Hutton's clients can afford his services and some can't.

One Tampa businessman ordered 24 pair of molded shoes last year and has ordered six this year. For him, money is no object, Hutton said.

But for others, the cost of Hutton's service is out of reach.

"I'm willing to work with those people," he said. "The people who are the best are the people who send me $25 a month because they can't afford it. I would rather see them in the shoes than the money in my pocket, anyway."

Hutton said he's not getting rich quick as a shoemaker, despite the rarity of his type of service.

"I am not making a killing at it," he said, citing the costs of running a business. But "if I ever hit the lottery, I would do this job for free. It's not a job; it's a hobby."