With a big smile and a warm greeting — his gift of gab helped — Jimmy Edward McGregor welcomed patrons and everybody who passed through the main entrance of Life Time Fitness' downtown Minneapolis Athletic Club.
He polished up their boots and loafers, too.
For more than 15 years, McGregor made old and tired pieces of footwear look new again and lifted the spirits of those who came to work out.
"He was the shining star of our organization by far," said Paul Schulz, the athletic director at the club that shares a building with the Grand Hotel at 615 2nd Av. S. "He was jovial, loved people and was a master at his craft."
McGregor, 81, of Minneapolis, had eaten dinner with his family at home and was in bed on Dec. 30 when he died of undetermined causes, said Kathy Burt, his partner of 45 years.
McGregor's workbench and chair across from the fitness center's main check-in desk were like his second home, Schulz said. It was there he meticulously cleaned, massaged and buffed shoes belonging to club members and those of their spouses, friends and co-workers. He was never too busy for a chat about football, the weather, history or to ask about events in their personal lives.
"If I had a bad day, he made me smile and my day got a little better," said longtime friend and Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu. "He took pride in his work and was a super shoe shiner. I had no excuses to buy new shoes when he got done shining them."
Chu used to bring him copies of her New Yorker magazines to thank the man who liked spicy food, was a crossword puzzle whiz and played his go-to numbers of 1737 when buying Powerball tickets.
"Those were his numbers," Burt said.
McGregor was born and grew up in Rockmart, Ga., where his high school football teammates called him "crazy legs" because of the way he ran on the field. He enlisted in the Air Force after high school and was stationed in Duluth.
He eventually settled in Minneapolis, and over the years held various jobs at the former Francis Drake Hotel, the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. A serial entrepreneur, McGregor ran a snow removal, cleaning and hauling service. In retirement, he picked up shoeshining, and even got a patent for a buffer he made by hand from silk and satin, family members said.
"He was into it. He loved going to work, and the camaraderie and contact," Burt said. "He had good friendships there."
He rarely missed a day at the club. When he did, he always made up the time. His death devastated members, Schulz said.
"He touched their lives," said Suzanne Egan Larson, Life Time Fitness' senior general manager. "He was a joy-filled person who brought a laugh to every encounter."
Never at a loss for words, McGregor maintained tight connections with friends and family members in Georgia, talking with them over the phone and making a trip to see them every July, Burt said.
"He had the gift of gab," Burt said. "He loved to talk and help anybody in need."
Besides Burt, McGregor is survived by his 11 children, Charlotte McGregor Stallings, James E. McGregor Jr., Ruth McGregor-DiMucci, Ahmil Jihad, Ivy McGregor, Emily Burt-McGregor, Jordan Burt-McGregor, Cheunita Tyler-Cruz, Demetri James Brown, Briana Thompson and Danella Thompson; and sisters Dorothy Bradley, Annie Mae Haynes and Sylvia Thomas.
Services have been held.