Gene Tovey’s funeral is going to be so Gene Tovey.
The longtime Columbus retailer, who also was known for his sense of humor and community involvement, died Friday at Hospice of South Central Indiana. He was 82.
His trademark sense of humor guided his family in making preparations for his funeral with staff members of Jewell-Rittman Family Funeral Home on 25th Street. The funeral home is in a building that previously housed the family-owned shoe store he operated.
Even more ironic are the times for calling and the service itself. Visitation will be from 1:01 to 5:05 p.m. Sunday at the funeral home and from 10:10 a.m. until the start of services at 11:11 a.m. Monday at First Christian Church.
“The kids knew Gene would have loved it,” his widow, Pat, said about the unusual schedule. “That’s the way he scheduled things. He had this theory that if you scheduled something on the hour people might forget about it, but by adding a few minutes to either side of the hour, they’d sure keep it in mind. He even did that when we were inviting people for dinners or parties.”
Throughout his life, Tovey was known for his whimsical sense of humor. It shared equal billing with his reputation as a veteran Columbus retailer. Chances are that if a Bartholomew County resident bought a pair of shoes in Columbus before 1998, it was sold by Gene Tovey.
From 1966 to 1998, he was the managing partner in Tovey Shoes, a business that had been in his family since 1925, when his father, Omer Tovey, began selling footwear from a small shop in the 300 block of Washington Street. Six years later, the operation was moved to 412 Washington St., where it would remain another 44 years.
He got off to an early start in the shoe business in 1945 while a 16-year-old student at Columbus High School.
“I swept the floor, put coal in the furnace, carried the ashes out and learned to fit shoes,” he recalled later.
That shoe-fitting operation in the 1940s and ’50s was aided by an early form of technology.
“We had an X-ray machine, called a fluoroscope, at the store,” he said. “As kids were trying on new shoes, they’d stick their feet in the machine, and they, along with their parents and the salesman, could check three viewfinders to see if the shoes fit.”
Unfortunately the device had some bugs. In the early 1950s, the Indiana Department of Health issued an order that required quarterly inspections to monitor radiation exposure.
“The inspections cost about $340 a year, and a pair of children’s shoes sold for $5,” Tovey said. “When that got to be law, Dad walked into the store and said, ‘Unplug that sucker and take it to the basement.’”
The younger Tovey introduced his own innovations to the retail business. In 1952 he positioned a live, talking parrot named Corky near the store’s entrance. It was one of six talking birds he had purchased from a friend in New Mexico. He sold the other five.
Tovey quickly acquainted the bird with the shoe business. “Corky was a good talker,” he remembered later. “He would greet customers as they came in and told them goodbye when they left. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Pretty shoes.’”
When a second Tovey shoe store opened in Eastbrook Plaza in 1969, he anchored it with a bird named Smokey.
“Unfortunately he was highly nervous,” Tovey recalled. “He’d pluck out his feathers from head to toe.”
Bowing to the exodus of long-standing downtown retail establishments that began in the 1960s, he moved the downtown store to a location on 25th Street in 1975. The original Corky, who was still alive and had a pretty significant vocabulary by 1975, moved with the business but died four years later.
“I looked around for another parrot, but by then the price had increased to $600,” Tovey recalled. “I bought a fish tank instead.”
He continued in the business until 1998, when he sold the 25th Street property, which was converted into Jewell-Rittman Family Funeral Home.
Although many remember him for his sense of humor and the connection with the retail establishment, Tovey was also a key figure in a number of local organizations and projects.
He was an outspoken member of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and headed a number of subcommittees, particularly those that were linked to downtown development. He was on the original board of The Commons and was an active leader with the Columbus Area Visitors Center. More recently he was president of the Nugent Foundation.
A video presentation of his life will be part of the calling hours. Oh yes, that video presentation will begin at 1:01 p.m.
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