Unger#8217;s Shoes celebrates 60 years in Ironton

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 14, 2006

The era was the 1950s, and Ironton was the picture of small-town America.

Elvis Presley was still the King. TV was a newcomer and becoming a must-have for every household. Poodle skirts and bouffant hairdos were the height of fashion,

And in a little shoe shop at 304 S. Third St. in Ironton, Gene Unger was already hard at work building a name and a business he had started the decade before, one that has stood the test of time, in part because of the passion he and his family put into it.

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That passion was captured by a jingle that WIRO radio blast far and near: “With Unger shoes upon your feet. Your smile is hard to beat. So if your feet for comfort hunger. Come and see the folks at Unger.”

More than 60 years have passed since that Feb. 18, 1946, day when Unger’s Shoes first opened its doors. Time may have changed the selection quite a bit but it has done nothing to

diminish the pride that goes into the full-service family shoe store that is celebrating six decades of service to the community.

“It feels great, feels really wonderful to be turning 60,” corporation president Joe Unger says with the nearly trademark exuberance he and his sister vice president Mary Meehan bring to work with them everyday. “It is a legacy. One hundred years from now people may recall Unger’s Shoes as they recall the other great retailers of Ironton. I hope that anyway.

“I hope that we have been around long enough that we are a part of the history of Ironton — not just for longevity, but because of Gene Unger.”

Mary agreed, emphasizing that their father was far more than just a shoe salesman.

“Dad just always wanted to do for other people,” Mary said. “I think that was the story of his life.”

Building a name

Remembered as a well-dressed man who always offered a warm smile, Joseph Eugene Unger worked his entire life. He once was a postman, a milkman and had years of experience in Ironton’s department and apparel stores including the revered Gabler’s Clothing.

But Gene had dreamed of opening his own business, recalls Bonnie Unger, his wife of 57 years. The opportunity came after he got out of the U.S. Army — and Gene jumped at it.

“I couldn’t express how great it has been. It really has been wonderful,” said Bonnie, the 86-year-old mother of five. “We prayed and prayed and God answered our prayers. Gene got his business and it has been a wonderful business.”

The shoe store opened Feb 18, 1946, actually right around the corner from where it is now located. Gene put his experience to work and his brother, Johnnie Unger, helped him get off the ground. Two weeks after that first day, the store moved into what is roughly its current location, which was the first building constructed in Ironton after World War II.

No one could have known that was where Gene would end up. In fact, he dreamed of becoming a physician and if it wasn’t for the 1937 Flood there might not even be an Unger’s Shoes today.

“Everybody lost everything. Everyone’s hopes and dreams were gone,” Mary recounted. “After that, there was not way he could go to college, so he stayed here and worked.”

Gene never lost his love of medicine and that was why he put such an emphasis on orthopedics, something which continues today since Joe and Mary are both certified pedorthists — individuals who is trained in the assessment, design, manufacture, fit and modification of foot appliances and footwear for the purposes of alleviating painful or debilitating conditions

Right from the start, Gene focused on doing more than just making a buck, Joe said.

“He left an imprint of what customer service is and how one should treat every human being who comes into the store,” Joe said. “We were all steeped in that whether it was while employed by my father or around the dinner table that night.”

The entire family had the chance to learn the craft too.

Family tradition

The four Unger daughters — Frances, Bonnie, Mary and Teresa — all took their turns in the store. Joe, the youngest child, was not far behind.

“I started in 1974 on Saturdays. I was 14 and had grass-cutting jobs,” Joe said. “Dad would hand me some cash at the end of the day and I would go straight down to Kresge’s and buy plastic models or to FAD to buy baseball cards.”

Joe wasn’t alone.

“All five of us grew up in the family business. We all worked there at one time or another as teenagers or while we were in college.”

Mary remembered hanging around the store, waiting for that day when she could join the retailer.

“We were allowed to work at the shoe store when we turned 14,” she said. “It was really something to look forward to.”

That family tradition continues today as a new generation of Ungers have all passed through the doors. At least seven of Gene Unger’s grandchildren have spent some time to learn about the business and learn about what makes it tick.

“Love has been a great part of this business,” Mary said. “The love of the business and the love of the people.”

For the customers

That same love goes far beyond just business — in fact the Ungers extend it to all their “wonderful” customers, employees and supportive family members through the years.

“The relationships with our customers have been our lifeblood. Our customers are very loyal to us,” Joe said. “… The challenge to us is make that loyalty worthwhile.”

Mary agreed that the customers deserve much of the praise during this celebration.

“We have had all these wonderful customers come into the store all these years to allow us to keep the store open,” she said. “Without the customers we wouldn’t be here.”

In 1985, the store expanded to include the shop next door and expand the original shop. Pieces of the past have been incorporated into the current store including the original cash register and receipt box, the original transom above the door and the original logo.

In 1995, the shop got a facelift on the outside with interior changes as well.

While other businesses in downtown Ironton were downsizing, the little shoe store that could kept chugging along to hit this 60-year milestone.

Time of celebration

Though Unger’s actually opened in February, Mary and Joe wanted to have a big summer birthday party for the business that has been a part of the community for so long and has continued to grow so much as to now employee eight people.

And they are pulling out the stops too for the event from July 10-15.

“Everything in the store is 20 percent off. That is something that we have never done before,” Joe said. “We hope this will be a huge event. Things that have never been on sale are reduced.”

Ironton Mayor John Elam will declare July 11, 2006, Unger’s Shoes Day.

Other events include daily drawings for free shoes and other prizes, door prizes. The doors will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and 9 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. The store is always closed on Sunday.

So the family carries on the tradition Gene Unger started all those years ago. Joe and Mary both say that their father’s presence is missed every day and that it took some getting used to since the man never retired and was around the store right up until his death on Sept. 2, 1995.

Gene Unger may have passed away but that certainly hasn’t prevented him from being proud of what his little shoe store has grown into with the family guidance, Bonnie said.

“Words cannot describe (how Gene would feel). He is looking down from Heaven right now,” Bonnie said. “He would be so thankful and so proud of all our children.”