HOUSTON — Rocky Carroll has flown in Air Force One and rubbed shoulders with presidents and Hollywood stars. Mostly he is interested in their feet, however.
Carroll's handmade cowboy boots are as good as they get, which explains why the 78-year-old's business card reads "The President's Boot Maker" and "Boot Maker to the Stars."
His list of presidential customers covers more than four decades with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all customers.
Russian presidents Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev also wore his boots. Not to mention a few Chinese leaders.
"I don't even advertise," Carroll said.
He has made cowboy boots for the Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Clint Black, Rogers Clemens, Kenny Chesney and Dolly Parton, to name a few. Liz Taylor's cowboy boots, with nine carats of diamonds, cost US$40,000. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, has a pair — complete with the NASA logo and Maple Leaf.
"He was still shaking being five days out of space," Carroll recalled.
One of his biggest projects involved making boots for members of the NFL Denver Broncos.
"They wore size 15 to 19s," he said.
Tucked away in a small space on a nondescript but busy Houston street, R.J.'s Boot Company is choc-a-block inside. Boots line several walls with hunting trophies hanging above. Behind the counter are pictures of celebrity customers. A set of steer horns hang above saloon-type doors leading into the back.
It's crowded. There's hardly room for Rocky and his assistant, Anthony (Shaggy) Garcia, who proudly shows off boots like they were paintings at the Louvre.
Drop something and you may be there for a while. Even 54-year-old son Michael Carroll calls the shop a "hole in the wall."
Still, its lure is such that the U.S. Secret Service has shut down the street to escort presidents in.
Michael Carroll has delivered boots to presidents. "It's amazing. They act like kids at Christmas.... They can't wait to put them on."
He recalls George W. Bush, having just finished a run, putting his new boots on under jogging shorts.
A Rocky Carroll set of boot starts at $500, with an average price of $1,000 to $1,500 depending on how they are made. His arsenal of material includes alligator, eel, ostrich and calf.
There are no shortcuts. For Reagan's boots, instead of nails, he used double lemon-wood pegs to attach the shanks.
The boots are handmade, from a mould of the buyer's foot.
"It fits like a glove. You ever wear a handmade boot, you won't go back to a store-bought boot," Carroll said
"They are like wearing slippers," said son Michael. "They are incredible."
Rocky will tailor each set of boots to the buyer, adding in logos, initials or something unique to the wearer.
"I try to build your personality into your boot," he said.
"I love it," he added. "I like to make something nobody can do."
It's been a lifelong love affair. "I made my first pair of boots when I was six years old," he said. "Born and raised in the boot shop."
His father began the business in 1938, the year Rocky was born. Rocky also had his three daughters and son Michael spend time in the business, the family's fifth generation of shoe-makers dating back to Italian roots.
Rocky is no one-trick pony. He spent 35 years in the Harris County sheriff's reserves, working nights before making boots during the day. "I only sleep two hours," he explained.
He still knows how to handle himself.
In 2002, he was hit by a truck in front of his shop at 5 a.m. by would-be robbers, who fired twice at him with a shotgun. Carroll, who was not hit by the shots but had his pelvis broken by the collision, fired back and hit two.
"The ones that lived, they got 45 and 105 years in prison," he said.
Carroll had a bag of doughnuts — police often visited him in his shop — and his attackers thought it was a money bag. He also had a gun in his boot, which he transferred to his pocket when he had a "funny feeling" approaching his store.
"Good thing I did because when they hit me, it saved my life.... Everybody should carry a pistol."
On this day, however, he is carrying a few bumps and bruises. He had just fallen off a ladder replacing a light bulb. But he remained at work, albeit not moving much.
"It's just swollen," he said, waving away a visitor's concern. "I'm going to get it X-rayed."
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press