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William Sheskey; sold look, style in fashion footwear; 84

William Sheskey was a shoe company executive who helped transform the public's perception of footwear from merely serving a utilitarian function to making a fashion statement.

''His whole thing was that he wanted to not just sell a shoe -- he wanted to sell a whole look," said Christopher Sullivan, his son-in-law.

As president of Commonwealth Shoe and Leather Co. in Whitman -- and later as head of the National Shoe Manufacturers Association -- he lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to keep shoe industry jobs from going overseas and insisted on relying on US companies to supply the materials for making shoes.

Mr. Sheskey was constantly keeping tabs on the latest styles in footwear, identifying market trends, and trying to get a handle on consumer preferences. He was one of the first in the industry to use endorsements by big-name athletes as a marketing technique.

On Thursday, Mr. Sheskey died at Massachusetts General Hospital, after suffering a heart attack. He was 84.

He grew up in Nelsonville, Ohio, where his father was a coal miner. He attended Ohio University in Athens on a football scholarship and took time off to serve in the Army stateside during World War II. Among his responsibilities was to transport and interrogate German prisoners.

He returned to Ohio University in 1946 and received his bachelor's degree in physical education. He went on to earn a master's degree in economics the following year.

His family moved to Syracuse, N.Y., so he could take part in a doctoral program in economics at Syracuse University. He finished the program requirements and then went to work for the US Department of Price Stabilization during the Korean War. Mr. Sheskey developed an interest in the footwear industry while monitoring the shoe market to make sure price gouging did not take place.

In 1956, he became a vice president at Hanover Shoe in Hanover, Pa., and moved about a year later to Hingham to take a job at Commonwealth Shoe and Leather Co. He ultimately worked his way up to the presidency. The company had factories in Maine and Whitman and was known for its signature ''Bostonian" line of shoes.

Mr. Sheskey worked out of the company's administrative offices, which he would jokingly refer to as ''my Yankee office," explaining that its spartan looks reflected the company's emphasis on putting its resources into its stores.

Nationally known industrialist Charles H. Jones of Weston founded the company in 1884, and its shoes became so popular that President Lyndon B. Johnson asked company executives to design and make custom shoes for him while he was in office. Mr. Sheskey headed the retail division before becoming company president in the mid-1960s.

The company was later sold to Kaiser Roth Industries, but he stayed on as president of the shoe division until it was sold to Gulf and Western Co. in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Sheskey started a shoe company called Pacers Inc., which developed inserts for shoes and sold them to area companies. He was also president of Bay State Milling for two years before retiring in 1987.

''His whole life was based on respect and equality," said his son John, of Hingham. ''Everybody was the same to him."

Along with his son, Mr. Sheskey leaves his wife of 62 years, Clara E. (Tipton); another son, William J. of Seneca, S.C.; two daughters, Elizabeth A. Sullivan of Hingham and Martha E. Goodrich of Lebanon, N.H.; 16 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said today at 10 a.m. in St. Paul's Church in Hingham. Burial will be in St. Paul's Cemetery in Hingham.

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