Familiar to frequent fliers, J.C. "Shine" Wilson, 74, mans the shoe shining booth in Terminal One at the Salt Lake International airport. A cancer-fighting veteran, he has shined shoes and shared his heart with thousands.
Last fall, Wilson faced lung cancer with humor. Just before surgery to remove the affected upper lobe, he told the anesthesiologist, “Whatever you do, get it taken care of. I don’t want to be late for work.”
Six days later, he was smiling and shining shoes at the airport.
Wilson recalls a memorable customer.
“I was bent over, working on his shoes, when another traveler stopped by to say hello. They talked about military service, and I asked which branch my customer served in,” said Wilson.
“All of them,” answered the customer.
“I looked up to see Colin Powell’s face, our Chief of Staff at the time,” Wilson smiles.
For the past 22 years, Wilson has shined shoes for well-known customers like the late King of Tonga, former Sen. Robert Bennett and Jerry Seiner. His work and personality have brought him up close and personal with thousands from all over the world. He likes to learn about the people he serves.
“The closed mouth goes unfed. If you don’t ask questions, there’s a lot you miss,” said Wilson.
Airport employees also notice Wilson’s friendly way with travelers.
“He’s a really nice guy,” said Robert Heatherly, team leader of Paradies Shops. Heatherly works down the escalator from Wilson. “I’ve seen J.C. be courteous with everyone.”
In the “polish, brush, shine then buff” process, he’s known to strike up a story. Wilson calls himself “half comedian,” and loves to get to know his customers.
“He’s really got a great heart,” said frequent flyer Ed Galisewski, who has visited Wilson on his monthly commute from Denver for the past 16 years. “Whenever I go to town, I look forward to a shining when I land and a shine before I take off. He shakes my hand and gives me a big bear hug.”
Galisewski recalls years ago when Wilson shared concern for a friend who worked at the airport, a single mom who was struggling financially.
“J.C. has a real sensitive heart for people. That year, we got together and made sure she could take care of her kids at Christmas,” said Galisewski.
During their monthly visits, Wilson and Galisewski swap stories while Wilson shines.
“He asks about my life, and I found out about his Vietnam War stories. He’s sure led an interesting life,” Galisewski said.
Originally from Pecos, Texas, Wilson has served eight years in the military (with an honorable discharge). He has worked as a truck driver and at the post office, and has owned a janitorial business in California. He also used to own the “Jazz Hut,” a Salt Lake City club where he used to let George Foreman and his youngest brother play pool.
In his free time, Wilson likes to visit his family and participate in the Elks and Masons clubs of Salt Lake. He has six children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Nearly a quarter century ago, Wilson came to his shoe-shining gig when a friend told him about the position. He remembers when the Salt Lake International airport had “just a little dusty parking lot, and passengers walked straight out to the plane, with no jetways.”
Ever since then, Wilson’s risen at 4:30 a.m. and worked 11-hour days, six days a week. For the first time in two decades, he cut back to five days a week after his surgery last year.
The only thing he doesn’t like about his job?
“When I don’t have customers,” said Wilson.
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During the writing of this article in March 2012, Wilson’s cancer relapsed. He had another surgery, and is now home recovering and plans to be back shining shoes soon.
If you want to meet a living legend the next time you’re in the Salt Lake Airport, be sure to get your shoes shined by the legendary J.C. “Shine” Wilson in Terminal One, at the top of the elevators.
Crystalee Beck is a writer, marketer and traveler who lives in Ogden. She met J.C. at the SLC airport, where he's beat her in card games many times. Follow @Crystaleelee on Twitter.