James E. Chambers, 86, operated shoeshine stand in State House

May 26, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

James Edward Chambers, who became a discreet confidant of Maryland legislators and lobbyists while operating a shoeshine stand in the State House for more than half a century, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at the Genesis Spa Creek Center in Annapolis. He was 86.

"To know the State House, you had to know Jimmy," said former Gov. Marvin Mandel. "He was really a fixture. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. When I first came into the legislature, he was there and he's been shining my shoes ever since. He was a wonderful person, ... so kind and friendly."

Born in Annapolis, he attended the old Stanton Elementary School. Family members said that as a young man he was a tap dancer. In the late 1940s, when he had been sick, suffering seizures and out of work, a hospital rehabilitation officer asked if he could shine shoes. He said yes and started work on the ground floor of the State House.

"They bought me a stand, and I've been here ever since," Mr. Chambers told The Sun in 2000.

"He was very independent and talked about the politicians all the time. They were his friends," said Carolyn Butler of Annapolis, one of several cousins who are his only survivors. "He just wouldn't give up. He was on medical disability and he used his shining money to supplement his income."

He kept at his post through this year's General Assembly session.

"He would confide in me and tell me who was cheap and who was not," said retired Judge Edgar P. Silver, who served in the House of Delegates from 1954 to 1965. "He liked to tell stories to those who would listen. He liked the veteran legislators and the lobbyists. He'd say, `They've got the money.'"

Mr. Chambers enjoyed dressing up on weekends in three-piece suits and hats. His shoes, of course, were always shined, family members said. He never drove or owned a car.

"With all of his time here, you might think [Mr.] Chambers would have a story or two," The Sun's 2000 article said. "But he says he has none. He's not a `deep throat.' Anything said around him goes in one ear and out the other. He's here to shine shoes, $3.50 a pair. He doesn't keep track of what legislators say. What's important is who stops by and who keeps on walking."

"[Spiro] Agnew and [William Donald] Schaefer are the only two governors who haven't got a shine since I've been here," Mr. Chambers said. "I told Schaefer a couple of weeks ago, `You're the comptroller. You're making good money. You can get a shine now.'"

Among the many photographs Mr. Chambers mounted on the wall above the stand are ones showing him serving many of the leading figures in Maryland politics -- including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Another portrays him holding the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl trophy while sitting next to team executive David Modell.

Funeral plans were incomplete.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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