A Rewarding Lifetime In Spit And Polish

OPELOUSAS, LA (AP) — Between Ville Platte and Opelousas, Keith Fontenot has spent a lot of time at work.

         In both places he's shined countless pairs of shoes outside barber shops and beauty salons. By his reckoning, he's been at it about 45 years.

         "It's been awhile," he said.

         Fontenot, 60, learned the trade by watching his older brother. In Opelousas he also took classes in what he calls rehabilitation school, a program for developmentally disabled people like himself, "to see what I could learn."

         "They let me cut grass and plant a field garden. I wanted to weld," he said, "but they wouldn't let me because they were afraid a spark would get in my eye."

         A cousin built a shoeshine stand for him, and he developed a regular clientele in the barber shops of his native Ville Platte.

         "The shoe shines when I started were a quarter," Fontenot said. These days, when he works Wednesdays and Thursdays at his niece's beauty salon on Opelousas' Courthouse Square, he charges $5 for a shine.

         Along the way, he's encountered some famous soles.

         They include the boots of actor Larry Hagman, best known for playing the deliciously evil J.R. Ewing on "Dallas." The two met at Ville Platte's Pig Stand, a popular lunch spot.

         That's also where he met Cajun chef Justin Wilson, actor Joe Pesci and Baton Rouge native Donna Douglas, who played the wholesomely lovely Ellie Mae on TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies."

         Fontenot admits he had a hard time concentrating on her shoes.

         "She paid my lunch and my breakfast, and she took me riding with two ladies in her convertible car," he said.

         "I sure would like to meet her again."

         He would also like to meet another 1960s TV performer, Ron Howard, who has gone from playing strawberry blond kids and adolescents on popular shows to directing Hollywood prestige projects like "A Beautiful Mind," ''The DaVinci Code" and "Rush."

         Said Fontenot, "I would like to drink coffee with him.

         "One day I would like for him to put me in a movie. Maybe they need a shoeshine man."

         Keith Fontenot lives independently in a Cajun cottage his parents built for him behind their house. Now his sister-in-law and brother live in the main property, said his niece Vera Fontenot, owner of the Farfallina salon where he works.

         "He's so proud of his house," she said.

         His presence has helped her business and her outlook on life. "He's real positive and happy. When he's not shining shoes, he's praying the rosary.”

         "If you ask him to pray for you, he will," she said.

         Whether at work or at prayer, he does spend a lot of time on his knees.

         – by AP/ Cheryl Devall for The Daily World

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