In a quiet, unassuming residential street of Nuriootpa, a house-like letterbox sits atop a jolly painted concrete boot, lumpy-toed with imagined wear.
The lettering “Harris’ Shoe Repairs” inscribed neatly across the letterbox’s roof points to the nature of the tidy residence beyond, which doubles as the home and workshop of John and Helen Harris.
Remarkably, it’s the same family home they’ve lived in since their marriage in 1965. Silent witness to all life’s phases, nowadays it serves as a quiet retreat for 79-year-old John to continue his longstanding shoe repair business, in partnership with Helen, ever steadfast at his side.
“People jokingly say to me, what’s going to happen when you retire?” says John, as he takes a break from the tools and techniques of his trade.
“I say you’ll have to go out and spend four dollars on The Advertiser and look in the ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ column. See my name in there, and then you’ll know I’m finished!”
To see John and Helen, content in the beautiful home they have made for themselves and as upstanding members of the community, it would be possible to think that life has always been straightforward.
But as with every pair of shoes that comes across John’s workshop table, there’s a tale behind each sign of wear, unique to the journey of its owner.
Looking back 70 years to when he was growing up on the family farm at Kapunda, John recalls with startling clarity the moment his beloved mother, Helena, died of a heart attack during a car ride home from town.
“We had to go through two gates to get to the farmhouse, and we got through the first one okay, but the second one she said, ‘I feel terribly ill,’ and just took a breath and she was gone,” remembers John.
“I virtually had to hold her head in the backseat.”
It was a tragic, defining moment for the then nine-year-old, the youngest of four children, who, along with his sister, Barbara, and brothers, Les and Trev, went on to suffer the enduring wrath of his grief-stricken father, Norman.
“It was very hard. My father wasn’t a gentle man at all, he was quite harsh,” says John.
“We got no comfort from him.”
The siblings, in particular the boys, found solace in sport, and later, music, when the three brothers were inspired to form their own band, The Omegas.
What followed for John has been 60 years of “banding”, as he calls it, his work as an amateur and professional guitarist like the steady tick of a metronome underscoring all other verses of life.
Yet it remained that with Helena’s untimely death, John was stripped of a mother and a true father figure all at once – holes that could not stay vacant in his life indefinitely.
As fate would have it, it was his fetching young neighbour, Helen Wendt, who would go on to play the leading role in healing what was lost and broken.
“I had to put a wife’s needs aside to restore John’s unresolved background. That was a big sacrifice, it took over 35 years,” says Helen, explaining it was her unwavering faith that helped guide the young couple through early challenges.
Eventually, it was a shared trust in God and His plans that set them on life’s journey together, one that was brushed with unexpected opportunity.
Having left high school at 14 to work on his father’s farm with his brothers, John realised there was not enough work on the land to support them all. At age 20 he left, taking up a position with a tyre company at Kapunda.
“I was good with figures and also with my hands,” reflects John of his early strengths, skills that would hold him in good stead for what was to come.
After 13 years of various jobs in tyre and car sales and winery work, a surprise offer changed the course of the Harris family unit, which by that time included children, Sophie, Greg and Justin.
“We had the offer to buy Ron Weidenbach’s shoe store in Murray Street, Nuri,” explains John.
“He noticed that Helen was a smart dresser and she loved fashion. He said you’ve got that potential in you, it would be a plus for you to be in the shoe trade.”
Helen laughs at the memory. “He just assumed I loved shoes, and he hit the nail on the head!”
Despite their initial reluctance to Weidenbach’s repeated and persistent offers, the couple eventually ran out of reasons to say no, accepting it as a God-given destiny.
“We said yes and took the business over in 1978,” says John.
“After some time, we changed it to Harris’s Footwear Store. It was coasting along quite well for some years, and then about 1981, I could see there was a need for a repairer in the Valley.”
After scrounging for a sewing machine and other tools and materials, John set up in the back room of the shop. On his weekly stock runs to Adelaide, he spent several hours learning in the workshop at Ideal Shoe Repairs in Hutt Street. A further mentor was Nuriootpa’s Gordon Bray, who had retired from repairing due to arthritis.
With time, diligence and a fair amount of creative flair, John became one of the most skilled and trusted shoe repairers in country South Australia.
“I was one of the few repairers that R. M. Williams used to source all their repairs from,” he says.
“They’re fabulous footwear to work on. My eyes light up when I see a pair of R. M. Williams come in because I know the product well and I know how to bring them back to life.”
But such is John’s craft, he doesn’t reserve his best work for only the distinguished brands. In fact, some of the more well-loved shoes present the most enjoyable challenges.
“I’ll never, or very rarely would I knock back a customer, because I believe there’s always a way around fixing it,” says John.
“Some of the manufacturers use very cheap material, and then it becomes difficult and takes a bit longer to be able to repair it. But that doesn’t stop me from always thinking, ‘well, it’s their favourite and it’s going to be comfort for them,’ so I’ll do what I can.
“I always treat customers’ shoes as my own.”
That level of care and sensitivity points to another of John’s continuing passions – community service.
Inspired by another of his mentors, the late Nuriootpa icon Arthur Ruesch, John became involved in civic life, joining the Nuriootpa Commerce Association, and serving as a councillor for three terms on the District Council of Angaston and The Barossa Council.
“I always think, in a leadership role, if you’re there for the purpose of self-acknowledgement or your own self-ego, you’re not there for the right purpose,” John says.
“You’ve got to be there because you’ve got a heart and you want to serve, so the community benefits.”
John retired from council in 2000, but was quickly asked to become Chairman of St. Petri Lutheran Church, a position he held for six years. He also kept up his shoe repairing, ‘banding’, and to further supplement income, started driving a bread delivery van, which was mostly nightwork.
But in 2009, a sobering conversation with his cardiologist put an end to the bread run and John’s hectic lifestyle.
“It was virtually forced retirement,” says John. “I just accepted that it was the direction that I had to take if I wanted to survive.”
Fortunately for all Barossa’s worn-out soles, Harris Shoe Repairs was permitted to continue, as long as rest was given daily priority.
“It hasn’t all been beer and skittles, and without Helen by my side as my foundation and rock, it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve what I have,” reflects John.
“But I still love doing what I’m doing. It brings joy to people, it brings joy to me and to Helen. I just feel blessed that I’ve still got this in my life.”