In 1998, shoeshine man Royal Zeno of St. Paul was told that he had lost the contract to operate his business at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
After some public outrage and some high profile support, Zeno was allowed to continue the business, which he had owned since 1970, and where he had worked for many years previously.
Zeno, 90, who last worked in September, died Saturday in St. Paul. He had received a pacemaker a few months ago.
"In his 80s, he was fighting for his business," said his daughter Rosemary Zeno of St. Paul, who worked with her father. He said at the time, 'I just want to keep my business going.'"
He grew up in New Orleans, and by age 10 he was working as a delivery boy. After serving with an artillery unit in Fort Sill, Okla., during World War II, he worked on a barge on the Mississippi River, and discovered the Twin Cities.
He liked the area, and he liked to fish. So he moved to St. Paul in the 1940s. First, he worked in St. Paul as a meatpacker and then for Elwood Johnson's airport shoeshining business, later becoming a partner and then sole owner.
In 1998, when his proposal and another's at the airport lost out in a bidding process, about 1,000 petition signatures were gathered, many of them from customers.
The NAACP and the likes of political heavyweights Hubert Humphrey III, then Minnesota's attorney general; Mike Hatch, then a candidate for state attorney general, and Mike Freeman, then the Hennepin County attorney, came out in support of Zeno.
He appeared on the "Today" show and in the Aug. 10, 1998 issue of People magazine.
"He held his head high," said his grandson, Royal Zeno of St. Paul. "He didn't worry, and said, 'Just let God take care it.' He didn't get mad, and he didn't get down.
"We all need an everyday hero," said his grandson. "He was mine."
At the airport, the winning bidder, Leather Care, a chain operation out of Kentucky, had proposed charging less, and would provide a toll-free number for complaints. They made a case that they would bring in more revenue.
But within days of Zeno getting the bad news, the Metropolitan Airports Commission offered locations to all three businesses, including a hair salon owned by the APTA Co. that offered shoe-shining.
Zeno had to move several times to less desirable locations. Leather Care later sold its operation.
"He was the epitome of the American dream," said Zeno's attorney, Alan Weinblatt of St. Paul. "For Zeno, if you want to get up in the morning and get to work, you are going to be a winner."
Over the years, he had employed at least six people, usually retirees who needed extra money.
Ten years ago, Zeno slowed his pace, working five evenings a week.
In 1998, the NAACP awarded him its minority business award for leadership.
His longtime companion, Gloria Wragg, died in 2006.
In addition to Rosemary and his grandson, he is survived by a sister, Earline Castanel of New Orleans, and a great-granddaughter.
Services will be held at noon Monday at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, 375 N. Oxford St., St. Paul. Visitation will be held at 11 a.m. at the church.