Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh shoeshine Albert will miss his kids
There's a jolly, gray-haired man with thick glasses who has walked the halls of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for more than 30 years.
His name is Albert, and he shines shoes.
He pushes a purple cart filled with brushes, soap and polish, charging $5 for a shoeshine.
Everyone at Children's knows Albert Lexie because he is a very generous man. Since 1982, he has donated more than $200,000 in tips to the Children's Hospital Foundation Free Care Fund. That's a lot of tips from a man who grew up in a Monessen housing project.
“He is a legend,” said Dr. Steven Docimo, the hospital's chief medical officer, who told me he gets his shoes shined by Albert every week. “He is a guy who has no personal wants or needs. He is totally focused on giving.”
The giving will come to an end on Tuesday, when Albert, 71, will retire. Hospital officials plan a big celebration in February to acknowledge his contributions. You'll probably see Albert on national TV again; that's how popular he is.
When I saw him this week, it was the first time I had met with him since 2000, when I interviewed him for a story about his appearance on the “Oprah” show. Wearing blue sweatpants with the Children's Hospital logo, he greeted me with a soft handshake and a warm smile.
“I don't have a favorite memory,” Lexie told me about his 31 years at the hospital, both at its prior location in Oakland and its current one in Lawrence-ville. “I just love the kids.”
Albert's kids, he calls them. He loves them so much that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he is scheduled to shine shoes, he wakes up at 2 a.m. He hops on a bus by 5:10 a.m. and makes it to Lawrenceville by 7:30 a.m. He's shining shoes by 9 a.m., often for the same 100 or so regulars, including physicians and employees.
“I walk slow,” he conceded. Over the past few weeks, he's been accompanied by a hospital volunteer because “I can't walk like I used to.”
Albert, who has a developmental disability, made his first shoeshine box in a shop class at Monessen High School. He became interested in fundraising after he watched the late KDKA-TV newscaster Patti Burns during one of Children's telethons in 1981. He had a crush on Burns and gave her a kiss the next year while delivering his first donation of $700.
“She was so nice,” he said about the experience.
Albert's departure will be felt throughout the hospital, where he is a celebrity of sorts. In addition to his “Oprah” experience, he's been interviewed by Jane Pauley, the former host of NBC's “Today” show. Yes, she got a kiss from him, too.
Over the past few weeks, on his farewell “Victory Tour,” he has been especially popular. When he showed up at the hospital's faculty building last week, more than seven doctors gave him their shoes at the same time. The doctors walked around in their socks while Albert did his job.
After he leaves, Albert won't be far removed from the hospital. His picture is on the hospital's colorful history wall, on the same mural with some of Children's medical pioneers like Dr. Thomas Starzl, the famed transplant surgeon.
“Yeah, I'm a little sad,” he admitted as he showed off several awards he keeps stored in his wheeled cart. “Oh, if I want to come back, I know I can.”
Happy retirement, Albert. Your kids will miss you.
Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.