George Manias

Hard-Working and Humble

Photography by David Vernon

As you enter the world headquarters of George’s Shoeshine and Hatters at 101 SW Adams Street in downtown Peoria, you aren’t just transported back in time—you are immersed in more than 70 years of memories. Framed pictures of famous faces can be found from floor to ceiling, angling for your attention. A flash of a smile from President Barack Obama, a framed letter signed by President Ronald Reagan, Caterpillar executives lined up for a shoeshine, Peoria City Council members, mayors and more… it’s Peoria’s ultimate “Who’s Who”…

Each photograph was captured because of one soft-spoken man: George Manias. Dressed smartly, he greets you with a shy smile. With a melodic Greek accent that time has not tarnished, he asks: “Do you want your shoes shined?” What follows is artistry—a process perfected with years of dedicated attention to his craft.

Though born in Peoria, George spent much of his childhood with his family on the Greek island of Crete, where he was forced into labor by Nazi Germany until the end of World War II. Upon returning to the United States, he took English classes in the evening, and he began shining shoes at the age of 15.

Over the years, George has been recognized by visitors from around the world for his decades of hard work and exemplary service. In 2006, he was honored on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and in 2012 he received the Medal of St. Paul, the highest honor in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. In 2016, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis honored George with a proclamation for 70 years of business. Now in its 72nd year, George’s Shoeshine and Hatters is not just the only place to get a shoeshine in Peoria—it is widely considered the best shoeshine one can find anywhere.

Tell us about your childhood and your parents. Where were you born?
I was born in Peoria. My dad [Emanuel Manias] came here in 1910 from Greece—from Crete. He worked at the factory, 12-hour days.

First he went to Canton, Illinois. After four or five years, he came to Peoria and opened up a little restaurant. He was here until 1916, when he got drafted to go to World War I [as an American soldier]. They sent him to Germany and he got shot in the leg. He came back after the war and opened up another restaurant. In 1929, he decided to go back to Crete to see his mom and dad—he hadn’t seen them in 15 to 20 years.

He met my mother [Katena] in Crete when he was visiting home… In 1930, he came back here to Peoria, and my sister [Angela] was born. He opened another restaurant. I was born here in 1931.

And then you returned to Crete as a child in 1935. Why was that?
My [grand]dad was in really bad shape. I was four or five years old—I don’t remember nothing from Peoria.

In the meantime, his dad passed away and his mom passed away. In 1939-40, we were getting ready to come back here to Peoria, but we got caught in World War II. Germany came down and took over Greece, so we couldn’t go.

But [Germany] had a hard time taking over Crete. They had to parachute to come onto the island. So everybody from Crete, even my dad, went to fight the Germans who were there. The Germans lost 7,000 troops in Crete. Every time they came down, we shot them.

What happened when the troops from Crete surrendered?
They put them in a camp—like a jail.

How long was your father in this jail?
About three years. He was with the men who were fighters. After that, the Germans were really, really mad and mean to the people in Crete… because they lost a lot of people there, you know.

I hate to tell you, but my dad went to jail two different times. The Germans knew my dad was American. He was a big man. He looked like an American.

The camp was bad, real bad. They might get one meal a day and that was all. People died there. People died on the streets. The Germans… make you kind of nervous, you know. They found maybe four or five people in Crete; they’d tell them to dig a big hole. They did. They shot them… [and] covered them up. That was… sickening for a boy like me.

What happened when your father was not in the jail?
They forced him to go around and shovel the street and cover up the holes… for a loaf of bread a week. He had to be home at 6:00 at night. If they caught you out, they’d shoot you. You couldn’t go out the next day until 7:00am. You had nothing to eat. You might have a loaf of bread to last you a week, if you were lucky.

Were you also forced into labor?
Because of the war, you had to get water to take to the Germans so they could cook in the kitchen. By the time I was nine or 10, they had me [carrying] five gallons of water a block away to the kitchen… so they had water to cook. After the Germans ate, if they had some left over, they gave me a plate. If they don’t, I didn’t get anything. I would just be hungry. That was every day. I didn’t have shoes for five years. I was barefoot.

In the daytime, you would go to the farm to find something to eat. That wasn’t just me—that was everybody who was out there.

What about your mother?
Mom was at home. She got a loaf of bread and she might go to the farm to see if she could find something to cook to eat. Sometimes it was nice, because you had the grapes and she would fix it to eat. But wintertime was kind of tough. My mom had a baby [Emanuel, Jr.] while this was all happening in Crete.

Are these stories difficult to talk about?
I like to tell my stories. I don’t mind.

When did you come back to Peoria?
I came back here to Peoria in late 1946. I didn’t have any money. My dad didn’t have a penny in his pocket. He didn’t have enough money to open up a restaurant, so he worked as a security guard. We lived in the Harrison Homes for five or six years.

I went to work to shine shoes. I got one chair in a barbershop at 205 S. Jefferson. I was there for five years with that one chair. I was 15 when I started there. A shine was 20 cents then.

I saved a little money to buy a place at the Niagara Hotel. You know where Jay Janssen’s office is now? That’s the location. I named that place George’s Shoeshine at the Niagara Hotel. In the meantime, you know, everybody was getting a shoeshine. I hired shoeshine people to work for me. I did hats, too. I was busy day and night. I opened at 7:00am and closed at 8:00 at night.

So you weren’t always shining shoes?
Not too much—I was too busy cleaning and blocking hats.

Can you explain what blocking a hat means?
Cleaning and reshaping it—press it down. Back then, everybody wore hats. If you’d come downtown, you’d have to have a nice suit, tie, a nice shine and hat. That’s why we were so busy. If you didn’t have your shoes shined, you weren’t dressed. Sometimes I didn’t go home until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning because I was busy cleaning hats.

In the meantime, they tore the Niagara Hotel down in 1968. So I had to move to Fulton Street, where the Twin Towers are now. Everything you see here, I moved over there. They tore that down and built the Twin Towers, so I had to move again.

You know, this is kind of heavy to move. [George motions around the room, pointing out the line of wooden chairs where he shines shoes.]

I was there about 10 to 12 years. And then it caught on fire. I moved down here after the fire almost 30 years ago.

[At this point, George’s brother, Emanuel Manias, Jr., walks into the shop. He was a lieutenant in the Peoria County Sheriff’s Department for more than three decades and then started his own private detective agency.]

Emanuel: I’m sorry to interrupt—I’ll just be here a second. A car is coming to pick me up.
George: He remembers the Germans, too.

What do you remember about the Nazi Germans in Crete?
I was little, but I remember them. I found one of them asleep and stole his bayonet. I hid it at our house in Crete in the fireplace. I was little, but if they had caught me, they probably still would’ve killed me.

What has business been like since you moved to this location?
At first it was kind of busy. But the last 15 to 20 years, business went down because people don’t get their shoes shined anymore like they used to. Too many casual shoes… and people don’t dress like they used to.
Emanuel: Everybody wears stuff like this. [He points toward his own tennis shoes.]
George: When I moved here, I had three people working for me, but after the last 10 to 15 years, it was just me. We don’t get much business anymore.
Emanuel: I think it’s been the last 10 years that have been the worst.

What happened to the other shoeshiners?
One left, retired… One passed away, left town. It’s just me right now.
Emanuel: At one time, before I went to college, I was his competition. I had a shoeshine parlor on Main Street. There were two shoeshine parlors on Main Street, about three blocks apart, and we were all busy! I had three people working for me, the other guy had a couple… George had four! Everybody got a shoeshine.

Do you still block hats, George?
I still do it—but if you get one a month, you are lucky. I ain’t joking.

What has sustained you over the years? You went from seeing children dig their own graves, to building up a good business, to losing many of your regular customers…
I like to meet people. I have been meeting people for 71 years, so I like to be downtown to see people.

You’ve met some pretty impressive people over the years.
I met [President] Reagan; I met Ford; I met Bush; I met Obama. [Vice President Joe] Biden invited me to go to the White House when he was here around four or five years ago. My brother and I—and my sister—went to the White House and met him and talked to him. I have a picture right here. [George points at a picture of his meeting with Vice President Biden.]
Emanuel: We are very strong Republicans, but I think George feels the same way… [Biden] is the greatest guy we’ve ever met. Down-home, friendly. I’ll tell you a funny part about this here at the White House… We were supposed to be there 15 minutes, that’s what they allocated for us. Ray LaHood was there and said, “George Manias, it’s time to go. We took up all of the vice president’s time.” [Biden] looks at him and says, “You may be the secretary of transportation—I think I’m still the vice president. They’re not going anywhere! I’m enjoying this!”
George: He did say that!
Emanuel: We stayed there for over 45 minutes. Had coffee and talked. He talked to us about everything.
George: Our life and his life, too.
Emanuel: He was telling us how he got started as a young kid from Delaware. [Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972.] He said he was a real underdog. Tell you a funny story… Biden said, “I was 29 points behind in the polls.” At the end of the night, he said he was still 1,000 votes down. He said, “There is a Greek community of two or three precincts that carried me. They had me after that go to the Greek church there.” He said he wanted to thank everybody—he got all but two of the Greek votes. When he introduced himself, he said, “I want to know which two of you guys didn’t vote for me!” No one confessed.

[Emanuel finishes the story with a laugh, and sees that someone has arrived to pick him up. Standing up, he pauses to share his thoughts on his brother.]

Emanuel: George doesn’t like to talk about himself. He was invited to go to a fundraiser at the Peoria Country Club, with John Bearce and the Governor [Bruce Rauner] at the same table. He told me, “I was embarrassed. I’m just a shoeshine boy. All them big shots were over there.” That’s what he is… humble. Very humble. I’ll tell you what, I wish I had half his qualities. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like George. He had half a dozen shoeshine boys—young kids that he brought up and taught. Everybody knows George. He could be married if he wanted to! Not that he wants that headache…

[After Emanuel Manias exits the shop, we continue our conversation with George.]

Do you get visitors from out of town in your shop very often?
People come here from out of town… They hear about me, they come to get their shoeshine, and they want to see these pictures because they’d never seen anything like it before. [It’s] something that people don’t see nowhere else, just here.

Can we walk through your shop and look at these pictures?
This is Biden right here when he came to visit me here… [Ray] LaHood is with him.

[George points to a picture of a street sign just outside of his shop—an honorary street marker that reads “George’s Shoeshine Boulevard.” He points to his mom and dad, and a picture that was taken when he had been in business for 60 years.]

Have you ever been married?
Never been married. My brother and sister are my close family, and my nieces and nephews.

Tell us about the presidential visits that you’ve had here.
Ford came in here to get a shine when he ran and lost [in 1976]. Then Obama came here when he was running for president [in 2008].

When did President Reagan stop by?
He was here campaigning for [Congressman] Bob Michel, because Bob almost lost [in 1982]. It helped. If he hadn’t come here, he would’ve lost.

Did you shine the shoes of both President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush?
Not the old man, no. Just the boy.

Do you have a distinctive shoeshine style?
Yeah. It’s the best way. I mean, I ain’t joking around. If we go to Crete—we go most every year—we go to my grandfather’s house on Crete. So in airports, I’ll see people shining shoes. They don’t shine like I do. They’re different, you know. I give a shine like it’s supposed to be shined. You use your bare hand and get the polish into the leather. It’s the best way.

I clean it with soap and then I put the polish on my hands, dress it, brush it, put on a second coat… Use a rag to shine more, and after that, brush real well. And you use a cloth to shine it real well.

What is this machine?
The brush machine. One time you used to use hand brushes. Ever seen a machine like that? Not too many places got that… When I was busy, I had four machines going. The one that I bought back in the 1950s… I paid $400 for it. Today, it’s a $3,575 machine right there. They’re old but they work perfectly.

I heard that you had some health issues recently. Did that keep you from working?
I had a pacemaker put on seven years ago. They put a stint. I almost had a heart attack. I had a blockage. I was out of work for about two months.

I couldn’t stay home. I told the doctor, “I gotta go back to work.” And he said, “No, you can’t go back to work because you can’t use your hand.” I could use this [other] hand, but not this hand. So, a month and a half passed. I told the doctor, “I’m going back to work. I don’t care what you say.” He said, “No more than three hours a day.” I said, “Okay, better than nothing.”

I couldn’t stay home. I would go crazy.

Any plans to retire?
Knock on wood, no. As long as I feel good.

What do you do in your personal time?
I have a garden. I cut the grass. Trim the bushes… I don’t go out because I don’t drink or smoke. I read some, do things around the house. I also see family.

Do you have any passions or causes that are near and dear to you?
I like the Red Cross, all that. They do the right thing. I’m not against nobody. I’m easy to get along with. I don’t get mad fast. I just try to do the best I can. My dad told me to do the best you can, whether they are customers… they come back. Do a lousy job; you’ll never see them anymore. That’s what I’ve done all my life.

Any thoughts about the future of Peoria? You have put a lot of your own time and work into the downtown over the years.
Yeah, everybody had to come downtown. If you had to go to eat, you had to come downtown. If you went shopping, you had to come downtown. Now, you can’t even find a place to go to buy a pair of socks or a handkerchief. Is that right or wrong? Someday it might come back. Because I see [OSF] Saint Francis moving over there in the next year or two. So, there will be a lot of people downtown. Business might be real good then. They will get a shine and all that. They might build more stores downtown, you never know.

Peoria’s been good to me since I moved here. I’m glad I’m in Peoria. No matter what happens, Peoria’s a nice town.

You might be a humble shoeshine boy, but everyone here knows you.
Like my brother told you, I sat right there with [Governor] Rauner and important people. I was embarrassed to be there, but after that I got over it. Everybody knew me… John Bearce got up and said, “George Manias has been in business for 71 years,” and everyone clapped.

It’s nice to have people know me. They like me. And I like them also… can’t help that!

You have met a lot of politicians. Do you try to keep politics out of your business, though?
I hate to tell you, but I like politics.

Do you debate politics with customers?
Not in the business, no! No. I like politics—and law enforcement, because my brother used to be a policeman for 41 years. So that’s my hobby. I like to talk and listen about politics. I don’t tell nobody… not here, but when the time comes, I tell them what I think.

Here, they tell me about this guy and that guy, and [I say], “Yeah he’s okay,” no matter who it is. Best to stay away from that…

You seem like a very calm person. Does politics get you fired up?
I stay calm. I don’t get excited about it. I tell it like it is. If they don’t like it, that’s their fault.

[George points toward an honorary proclamation from Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis.] The mayor gave it to me for being in business 70 years.

Do you have a pretty good relationship with Mayor Ardis?
He was in today. He comes in about once a week. I see a lot of mayors… but the best mayor I know is Jim Ardis. He does the job like he’s supposed to be doing. That’s the truth. He’s just like me and you. He does his job and he doesn’t brag like other people brag.

Any other favorite politicians from over the years?
I like Ray [LaHood]. I like Darin [LaHood]. I like Ryan Spain. He’s a smart boy also. I like [Bruce] Rauner. I’ve seen all of them.

Do you think you understand politics better than most people because of who you’ve talked to over the years?
You know, [when] shining shoes, people talk about politics… I just listen. I say nothing. That’s when you learn something. You’d be surprised how many people just talk and talk, and I just listen.

Do you know a lot of secrets about people in Peoria?
Mhmm… But I keep it to myself.

How would you like to be remembered?
I hate to see someone call me “Mr. George.” Just George. George’s Shoeshine World Headquarters.

Any final thoughts, George?
I treat people the same no matter who they are. If they have a dollar or two dollars or a thousand dollars… that’s why people like me and like to come back. It’s the best tool I know. Just treat people right. Is that right or wrong?

[George shrugs and smiles, indicating that the answer to his question should be obvious.] iBi