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Omaha’s Dehner Boot Co. has fit shoes to the famous feet of Beach Boys and five star generals, movie stars and presidents (and one movie star president). Their boots have seen world wars and Warner Bros. studios. They’ve been worn by spy plane pilots and Oscar winning actresses.
This 142 year old company is, as one employee said, “known worldwide but not locally.” Its boots have gone farther and faster than most soles would dare to dream.
These boots had three layers: a white calfskin exterior, a plastic foam insulation and a tanned elk lining. They were large roomy enough for, say, the sock of a spacesuit. Goodrich made the suits.
Did Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom wear Omaha made boots into outer space?
NASA “never said for sure,” said Jeff Ketzler, the 60 year old president of Dehner and great grandson of the company’s founder. “But when you saw photos of the guys suited up and ready to go, the boots looked an awful lot like ours.”
And he couldn’t imagine, he said, that NASA would have placed a second order of boots if they weren’t going to use them.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum has boots in its collection that were used in Project Mercury or the high altitude flights preceding it. Goodrich inside them, said Cathleen Lewis, a curator of International Space Programs and Spacesuits at the museum. This fact doesn’t confirm that Dehner boots went to space, but it does better the odds.
Ketzler can confirm this: He has personally measured the feet of more than 30 astronauts. He’s met nine of the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon: Neil Armstrong at a SAC event, Buzz Aldrin at a party in Houston.
“Buzz is a special kind of crazy,” Ketzler said. “He’s a great guy to hang with.”
Before these boots (probably) went to space, they’d already flown to the edges of Earth’s atmosphere. The space boots were a modified version of the “alert” boot Dehner made for SAC. Pilots in pressurized suits wore Dehner boots while flying in SR 71 Blackbirds and U 2 spy planes.
Yuri Gagarin might not have donned Dehner leather, but the company’s shoes did set foot on Soviet soil. When U 2 pilot Francis Powers’ plane was shot down over Russia in 1960 (an incident chronicled in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”), he was wearing Dehner boots.
“That’s the thing about the place,” Ketzler said of his company. “We’re just a little place in Omaha. But we get around.”
Dehner no longer sends shoes spaceward, but it still makes training boots for NASA.
The company which started in Junction City, Kansas, in 1875 and moved to Omaha in 1930 has a history filled with stories like this. Dehner shoes kept popping up Forrest Gump style at dozens of key moments in the 20th century.
In a lot of cases, Ketzler still has the receipts. He kept the measurement sheet for Ronald Reagan, the order ticket for James Dean and the pattern for a pair of Oxfords purchased by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Even so, “the amount of history that’s been lost by my grandfather and my dad because they just didn’t think it was that important was just astronomical,” Ketzler said. “Just the mountain of history that’s been lost. It’s devastating to me.”
As a rule, Dehner trashes all client paperwork if the client hasn’t done business with them in a few decades. Jeff’s grandfather (Harold Ketzler) and father (Donovan Ketzler, who died in 2013) followed this rule no matter the customer’s historical significance. Jeff admits he himself is starting to overlook the fame of some clients.
“We don’t pay much attention to a lot of the stuff,” he said. “We’re always proud of it. But we don’t really know exactly what the hell’s going on with a lot of it.”
There’s also this: Whether you’re a president, an astronaut or an average Joe, the shoemakers are going to give your shoes the same level of care and quality.
The boots, of which Dehner tries to produce 200 a month, are still made using the same sewing and leather working machines the founder himself purchased secondhand in the 1930s. The shop has machine parts books dating back to 1929.
In the beginning, the company was known as Teitzel Dehner, and it supplied custom made boots to cavalry officers. The founders, Carlton C. Dehner and John Teitzel, later moved the factory from Junction City to Wichita, Kansas, and took on a third partner, Schuyler Jones. But when Teitzel died in 1929, the partnership soured. Dehner sold his shares and started over in Omaha. He brought along seven employees and his son in law, Harold Ketzler.
“And I would say,” Ketzler said, “that every West Point graduate from 1912 to 1970 has worn a pair of our boots or shoes at one time or another. MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley.”
The company grew over the years. By the time Jeff became president in the early ’90s, Dehner was employing 34 people and making 12,000 boots a year, half stock, half custom made.