Shining a light in the darkness is his day job

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary 

From his elevated perch on the shoeshine stand near Concourse C of Louis Armstrong International Airport – a nondescript wooden platform with two blue-padded chairs and four metal footrests – Wayne Kendrick, 60, notices everything and everyone.

He is Catholic, and some have described the chair from which he waves and smiles to his fellow airport employees and to the thousands of travelers who daily roll their luggage past him as a sacred post.

“I’ve had a couple of pastors come and say, ‘You know, Wayne, this is your pulpit,’” said Kendrick, who recently was honored by the New Orleans Aviation Board for his 35 years of service as “the mayor of the airport.”

That unofficial title was right there in the resolution the board bestowed on him in July. It was affixed with a gold stamp and accompanied by a lot of pomp and circumstance – and jockeying for position.

“The board members are all my friends,” Kendrick said, smiling about the resolution signed by board chairman Michael Bagneris and now framed in his house. “Mr. Bagneris said, ‘We were fussing over who was going to deliver this to you, so we did paper, scissors, rock.’ That made me feel kind of good. When they stood up – the whole room – I really got weak-kneed, but I didn’t show it. The last time I had people stand up and clap for me, I was playing basketball at McDonogh 35 High School.”

Intuition and a listening ear

Since accepting his father Richard’s invitation on April 12, 1984, to join him at his original airport shoeshine stand, Kendrick has done what has come naturally. He has developed a sixth sense in knowing what a traveler might be going through. Sometimes, passengers tell Kendrick they are flying out of town to “bury their mother.”

“In that situation, I do not take their money, and I’ve had them come back to the airport with their kids and they say, ‘This is the guy who when I was coming to bury your mom, he shined my shoes and wouldn’t take any money,’” Kendrick said. “I got my mom’s values and my daddy’s talent. The first questions I normally ask when I get someone in the chair is, ‘How are you doing? How’s your family?’ I’m interested in them. I have customers whose shoes I don’t even shine, and we’ve gotten to be friends, and they’ll stop by and we’ll talk.”

Early-morning gratitude

Kendrick’s body clock gets him up every morning between 4:30 and 5 a.m., in time to get to the airport by 6:30.

“I love this – I don’t need an alarm clock,” he said. “I get up and it’s like three steps to my bathroom. I say, ‘Lord, thanks for waking me up.’ I brush my teeth and my wife asks me what I’m smiling about, and I say I’m happy. She makes me smile.”

Sometimes, people, especially his airport coworkers, stop by just to sit and chat. On a recent morning, Kendrick either greeted by first name or fist-bumped every coworker who passed by.

“I’m going to tell you, they got a lot of young kids around here, and they look up to me and respect me,” Kendrick said. “I know when something is wrong with them. I look in their face every morning. A couple of mornings, I’ve seen them pass me by and I’ll say, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they’ll say, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong.’ And I’ll say, ‘You can tell me when you come back.’ They’ll ask how I know. And I say, ‘Because I look at you every morning, and I know when something’s wrong.’ Some of them don’t have anybody to talk to. Some of them don’t have father figures. So, this is what I do.”

Kendrick’s father will turn 84 in October – he lost his wife of 62 years in 2015 – and with his waning health, he’s had to decline his son’s invitation to join him at the airport for half-days.

“He told me, ‘Wayne, you know, I used to work for your Maw. Your Maw wanted things. Maw doesn’t want anything no more because she’s gone,’” Kendrick said. “All I could do was hug him.”

A woman in need

When they were working together as a team in the early 1990s, a woman was sitting in a chair nearby, sobbing uncontrollably. Father turned to son.

“Wayne, you going to ask her what’s wrong?” Richard Kendrick said.

The woman had been dropped off at the airport by friends, but she had left her purse, wallet and ticket in the car as they drove back to Baton Rouge. There were no cell phones. She was going to miss her flight.

Kendrick asked her if she wanted to get something to eat and then sat her down at an airport restaurant.

“I said, ‘We’re going to buy you a plate of food and a big Coke because we don’t know how long you’re going to be here,” Kendrick said. “And I gave her $10. I said, ‘That’s for you,’ and she gave me a big hug. I just said, ‘Could you please stop crying?’”

Kendrick and his dad left for the day. Three months later, five nuns in habits were walking down the concourse past the shoeshine stand.

“One of the nuns – I think her name was Mary Beth – came up to me and said, ‘Wayne, how are you doing?’” Kendrick said. “She said, ‘I was out of habit the last time we met.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘I’m the lady you fed.’ She reached out and gave me five $100 bills, and my heart sank. I said, ‘I don’t need this. What I did was from my heart.’ And she told me, ‘Me and my sisters are doing this from our heart.’ That’s part of my Momma there.”

His talks with passengers and coworkers about their families sometimes evolve into requests for prayers. Cliff White, a Delta Airlines flight attendant, said Kendrick got him through his daughter’s serious illness with prayer for four years.

“This same girl, in seven days, I will take her up to Troy, New York, to put her in the dormitory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for engineering,” White said. “That’s the same girl he saved.”

Kendrick uses small pieces of notepaper to compile a growing prayer list, which he keeps in the drawer with his polishes and 100% horsehair brushes.

“I’ve forgotten some of the people, but they still get prayed for every day,” he said.

He learned from his father the trade of shoe polishing. It starts with cleaning the shoe first – “otherwise you’re just packing polish on dirt” – but he has to know which leather should be cleaned by saddle soap or alcohol. He applies the polish by hand.

“You have to rub that leather with your fingers,” he says. “With a rag, you’re going to lose all your polish.”

Although the movement to casual attire in the business world has begun to limit his business, he still loves what he does. Customers who aren’t even flying out will drop off four or five pairs of shoes at the terminal door, and they’ll pick up the shoes later. Kendrick also has plenty of female customers.

“They always ask about their heels,” Kendrick said. “Sometimes the heel is torn up. I take some glue, and I put that leather back there and I dye the part that doesn’t have the leather and get them through the day. I tell them, ‘I’m giving you a six-month reprieve.’”

He has shined the shoes of Rob Lowe, Nicholas Cage, Julius Erving, Barry Sanders, Franco Harris, Dan Akroyd, Patti LaBelle as well as of Oblate Father Tony Rigoli, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where he attends Mass with his wife Theone. (“That’s spelled ‘The-One,’” Kendrick said, smiling.)

“Father Tony is real kicks,” Kendrick said. “He says I’m famous. I shine other priests’ shoes, too. I love those people, man; get my blessings. After I see them, I can bless somebody else.”

When Kendrick lost his mother in 2015 – Doris Kendrick was the lead candy maker at Evans Creole Candy Factory on Decatur Street, and Kendrick had changed her tracheostomy tube every day – her funeral was celebrated at Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home in Treme. Because his parents knew so many people, the place was packed.

Kendrick said he held his grief in check in the days leading up to the funeral, but on the day of the services he finally had to go outside as his mother’s coffin was closed. Like the woman in the airport years earlier, he was inconsolable. He bent down to his knees on the sidewalk in front of the funeral home.

“I have this picture in my head, and I wish I had this physical picture,” Kendrick said. “My wife is over me, my kids are around me, and I’m crying. And when I raised my head, I saw Jerry, the guy that fixes the elevator at the airport; I saw Nick the cook; I saw Eric from aviation; I saw Mike Geason the sky cap; I saw Dave Schulingkamp, my friend from the French Quarter who’s a regular; I saw Dave Tibbetts, who was the fire chief of the airport.

“All these people are standing next to me, and my wife says, ‘Look at your other family, Wayne.’ That’s a picture I will never forget. And, it all came from the shoeshine stand. It all came from right here.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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