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Wednesday, February 20, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Heinz Heiss, A Perfectionist Who Hand-Crafted Orthopedic Shoes

In the months before his death, Heinz Heiss spent hours doing what had given him pleasure and sustenance for nearly 50 years - making shoes.

Mr. Heiss wasn't like one of those modern-day factory machines, spitting out 1,000 identical shoes a day. His shoes would take nearly 20 hours to cut, shape, glue and sew. And his handiwork wasn't identical - each pair was uniquely suited to its owners, whose feet were misshapen by disease or misfortune.

``He's the 20th century in a nutshell, just a remarkable character,'' said Walter DeMarsh, a former apprentice.

Mr. Heiss, 79, died of cancer Feb. 12 at Ballard Community Hospital.

Taught shoemaking by monks in his native western Austria, Mr. Heiss later worked with shoemakers from around the world and trained a few apprentices of his own after moving to Seattle in 1969.

His apprentices remember Mr. Heiss' perfectionism and dedication to hand-making orthopedic shoes from the ``last'' - a wooden block Mr. Heiss would shape into the form of a customer's foot - to completing the final stitches.

``He was the most extreme of perfectionists you can find,'' said Dick Zimmer, 49, a former apprentice. ``If anything was not exactly how he would do it, he would say take it apart, do it again.''

His family says that in later years Mr. Heiss was able to squeeze in trips to far-flung locales such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Soviet Union, the Panama Canal and Jerusalem during

``semi-retirement.''

``He never quit,'' said Henry Heiss, 28, one of five surviving sons. Mr. Heiss would make shoes until he and girlfriend Micki Jepson had a sufficient nest egg to take them on the next trip.

The customers who traveled to Mr. Heiss' shop - some making trips of hundreds of miles - recall being immersed in a disappearing culture and enthralled by a storyteller with a thick accent.

``It was always interesting. He always had hot pots of glue sitting around. He always smoked cigarettes. You always wondered if something was going to catch on fire,'' said Bruce Piland, who was left with different-sized feet after a bout with polio. ``He was a delightful person to sit and talk with.''

Dick Wilkinson, who broke his feet in a fall, also met Mr. Heiss while searching for orthopedic shoes.

Mr. Heiss' work ``was a labor of love, something he intensely liked to do,'' Wilkinson said. ``He was just one heck of a good, dedicated craftsman.''

Mr. Heiss was enrolled in shoemaking school at age 13 by his mother in Tyrol, West Austria. His industry and talent pushed him to the head of the monastery class.

After World War I, when dollars were tight, Mr. Heiss made a living by using his head. When leather was scarce, he made shoes from suitcases.

During World War II, the German army put him to work on the Russian front repairing harnesses. Unlike other soldiers, Mr. Heiss did not have a problem with bone-cold feet.

``He knew enough to make cut-out wool insoles for his feet,'' Zimmer said. ``He had two pairs: one pair under his armpits warming up and drying out, and the other pair keeping his feet from freezing.''

Times were tough after World War II. Mr. Heiss would swap shoes for butter, bacon, cheese and cigarettes, said Herta Heiss, 58, his wife for 18 years.

Mr. Heiss left behind shoemaking businesses in Europe and moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1952. Working all day in a basement with one bare light bulb would earn him $2. He progressed to piece work he could do at home. After a few years, he moved to Vancouver and began making hiking boots and ski boots. While living in British Columbia, he was visited by a Seattle orthopedic shoemaker who wanted to sell his shop, Herta Heiss said.

Mr. Heiss moved to Seattle in 1969 and was followed by his family one year later. Pushed by economics out of making stock shoes by faster and cheaper factory-produced versions, Mr. Heiss began making orthopedic shoes.

He moved from the Pioneer Square business he bought from Ernst Meinel to the family's home in Fremont in the mid-'70s. The family lived upstairs. Downstairs, Heinz would work on shoes, and Herta would help with sewing, shining and hammering.

Despite a bout with phlebitis, a broken hip and progressing cancer, Mr. Heiss continued to make shoes.

Stanley Shosky, a customer for 15 years, said he drove 240 miles to Mr. Heiss' shop because at that time he was the only shoemaker who made orthopedic shoes from top to bottom.

``He told me, `Stan, I don't feel bad because I've worked right up till the last year,'' ' Shosky said.

Services were Saturday at Bleitz Funeral Home. Remembrances may be made to the American Cancer Society.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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