Adventure Journal

Monday, 1 September 2008

Like his toes, Henry "Barefoot Stew" McDonald’s spirit was free

TAMPA — He had size 11 feet, wide like paddles. Heels sullied and cracked. Toes calloused by pavement and carpet and sand and whatever. Soles thick like, well, shoe leather.

"Oh, he could grind a cigarette out with his feet," said his brother, Duncan McDonald.

Henry "Barefoot Stew" McDonald died Tuesday after a battle with vascular problems. He was 83.

He never had much use for shoes. He had a couple of pairs he wore to funerals and church when his family insisted. Once, a flight attendant infuriated by his dogged insubordination thrust him knitted booties to wear on the plane. They didn't fit.

Shoes didn't make sense. Check your hands, he theorized. Your fingernails aren't trapped up all day. Don't they look healthier than your toes? And furthermore, why should anyone even care?

It came down to freedom.

"Take a look at a baby sometime," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1988. "You put shoes on a baby, and the first thing the baby does is take them off. It's a natural thing."

He grew up during the Great Depression, a time when many of his friends didn't have shoes. Rather than make them feel bad, he dumped his under a bush before school and let his piggies fly free. His mother never knew.

In the Army Air Corps, he flew bombers sans shoe. Later, he worked as a general's aide. The general insisted Mr. McDonald wear shoes with his uniform. He compromised — he'd wear them through the parking lot and into the office. Once he was through the door, the shoes were a goner.

Eventually, the general stopped wearing shoes, too.

In the 1950s, he raced stock cars on the NASCAR circuit. It's where he earned the nickname "Barefoot Stew," because, well, you know.

"He could hook his foot over the accelerator panel," said his brother, 79. "The last guy that came off the gas into the first turn won the race."

Feet aside, he was not a sloppy dresser — quite the opposite. He dined shoeless at Bern's Steakhouse, the Don Cesar and Studio 54 in New York, sometimes in tuxedos. Once, he deboarded a plane clad in a decadent gray three-piece suit, white button-front shirt, camel hair coat and tie. No shoes.

It was snowing.

He found talents that suited him. Mr. McDonald was one of the first people to ever waterski barefoot.

He was strong and handsome, a towering 6 feet 4. He wowed crowds by lifting tiny female performers in the air at Cypress Gardens, heels skidding along the surface at high speeds.

Waterskiing gave him notoriety. He found work doing sports commentary on ABC's Wide World of Sports. He got bit roles in movies and commercials. He modeled as a Marlboro man and for Vitalis hair tonic.

He taught waterskiing in Tampa and judged national and international barefoot waterski events. In 1992, he was inducted to the Waterski Hall of Fame.

The film industry always interested him. He once served as president of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association. He scouted locations for major motion pictures like Parent Trap II and H.E.A.L.T.H.

His North Tampa house was cluttered with stacks of newspapers and documents reaching the ceilings. He tiptoed around piles, but he knew where everything was. And, really, he didn't care what anyone thought of it.

He rode motorcycles without shoes, getting tickets and appearing in court several times, always defending his right to naked toes. People who were grossed out needed to loosen up, he figured.

Once, when a woman asked why he didn't wear shoes, he asked her why she didn't wear a bra. It wasn't to be rude — he just wanted to make a point about freedom.

Admirers everywhere looked on, toes cramped and bound by leather and laces.

"A lot of people come up to me and say, 'I hate shoes, too. I wish I could do that,' " he once told the newspaper. "I just tell them they can."


Henry "Barefoot Stew" McDonald
Born: Feb. 20, 1925.
Died: Aug. 26, 2008.
Survivors: brother, Duncan and his wife, Sandra; sister, Kate McDonald Meier and her husband, Robert; brother-in-law, Donald S. Beyer; several nieces and nephews.

Services: none planned.