When you walk a mile in his shoes, you'll smile

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When you walk a mile in his shoes, you'll smile

Namgung Jung-bu was sitting at his desk, staring down at what looked like abstract sculptures. But the objects he was inspecting were not art; they were plaster casts of deformed human feet.

Mr. Namgung, 64, makes the casts in order to custom design and make shoes for the disabled. He has been doing this since 1996, when he suffered a disabling accident.

"I would be a dead man if it weren't for this job," he said.

Mr. Namgung has been a shoemaker all his life, but started making custom shoes after he was hit by a subway train and lost his right arm. "I must have been heavily drunk when the train hit me," he said. "I fell onto the tracks and the train ran over my arm. The next thing I knew, it was gone."

The shoemaker doesn't seem bothered by the loss of his arm. The remaining stump twitched now and then, but Mr. Namgung seemed optimistic.

"I think someone was trying to tell me that I had to accomplish something in this life," he said.

Mr. Namgung doesn't have any religious beliefs, but said the loss of his arm has brought more meaning to his life. At first, he said, he fell into a deep depression, spending most of the time drinking and getting into fights.

As time passed, his thoughts became clearer. He decided that he wanted to help people, and that the best way would be to make shoes for disabled persons to help them walk without pain.

"It's the only thing I could do," he said. "I have been in the shoe business since I was 12 or 13."

Since he began making shoes for the disabled, he has had nearly 4,000 customers. And each plaster cast on his desk has a story of its own.

"The black one here belonged to an employee of JoongAng Ilbo's branch office in the United States," Mr. Namgung said, gently stroking a plaster mold on which the difference between the toes and ankle was hard to discern.

"At first I thought the woman wasn't too happy about my work because she didn't call to tell me how she liked it," he said. "But later she called and told me that her family had burst into tears when they saw the shoe."

The tiniest shoe in the store was sitting on a window shelf. Looking at it solemnly, Mr. Namgung said, "This belonged to a baby that was less than a year old."

The shoemaker said that every time a young mother comes into the store with a child suffering from a disease, or one with a deformed foot resulting from an accident, it breaks his heart. "In some cases, the mother and I cry together, and I really do feel what they are going through," he said. "The child becomes like my grandchild."

Still, the job isn't always about sorrow. Mr. Namgung said that a group marriage for disabled people was held in September, and that seven of the participants were wearing shoes that he had made especially for the occasion.

"I'm not doing this for the money," Mr. Namgung said. "I feel great joy and pride when my customers thank me. Just a simple smile will do."

His optimism restored, he recalled something that made him chuckle: "Recently a customer in Incheon said he had lost eight kilograms because he walked so much at his job."

by Lee Ho-jeong

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