Willie Lusk, Jr., an African-American bootmaker with a national reputation, born on April 7, 1914, at San Angelo, Texas, was the son of Willie and Mamie Sue (Wilkes) Lusk, who divorced three years later. Lusk studied in the San Angelo public schools, but by age twelve he polished shoes to earn money after school.
A year later Lusk started work at N. A. Brown’s Boot Shop in San Angelo. From Frank Urban, a Czech immigrant at Brown’s, Lusk learned the craft of creating boots by hand. Brown sold his business in 1934 and urged his brother, E. E. Brown of Lubbock, to hire Lusk to work in Brown’s Boot and Saddle Shop in Lubbock. By the early 1940s Lusk, a pleasant but formidable figure at 6 feet 6 inches tall and approximately 260 pounds, became the foreman for Brown.
When Brown sold his shop in 1946, one of his customers, Bennie Binion, a gambler in Dallas and later Las Vegas who knew Lusk, offered to finance Lusk if he started his own boot-making business. Lusk agreed and established Lusk’s Boot Shop in Lubbock. He soon became a success with a backlog of orders. Despite the segregation of that era, a majority of Lusk’s employees were Anglos who worked in a relaxed environment. His business grew largely by word-of-mouth advertising, and Lusk also traveled, primarily in the western United States, especially Las Vegas, to promote his “Western” style boots. Although Lusk put no brand name on his boots, a pair could be recognized by a special flame stitching design at the top, a box toe, and careful fitting. Lusk always meticulously measured a customer’s feet and kept detailed hand-drawn charts. Increased orders led to a larger shop financed by Binion. As an old-style small businessman who kept limited records, Lusk occasionally had financial problems amidst his general success.
Lusk’s boots became nationally-known as they appeared on the feet of movie stars Shirley Temple, Chill Wills, Audie Murphy, Robert Taylor, and Ronald Reagan; television actress Betty White; singers Merle Haggard and Ray Price; Gen. Omar Bradley; Colorado governor Dan Thornton; and others; including past president of Chile Gabriel González Videla. Ebony magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Illustrated wrote about him. Coronet magazine described him as “the best bootmaker in the world” in July 1951.
Lusk married Arizona Echolls on March 3, 1934, in San Angelo, but they divorced on November 7, 1939. He then wed Mildred Kavanaugh, a Lubbock school teacher and librarian, on December 26, 1940. Their children included sons Karl and Kevin and daughter Linda Marie. The Lusks became active members of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lusk acquired a pilot’s license in the 1930s and flew mostly for pleasure.
Lusk died of cancer on July 3, 1976. In 1977 his wife sold his business which continued in Lubbock until 1991. In 1986 the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures included a pair of Lusk’s boots in a traveling exhibit for the Sesquicentennial of Texas. The city of Lubbock in 1990 named a park for Willie Lusk, Jr.