The Story

Peter Bug Shoe Academy, a program that offers
part-time employment to urban youth.

John "Peter Bug" Matthews is a man with a trade, 
with dignity, and with a mission, according to articles
in the Washington Post (2007, mid-September) and
The Boston Globe (2007, September 21).

His neighborhood is Southeast Washington D.C.,
and he is a 48-year-old teacher at Phelps High School.
but he has also run the Peter Bug Shoe Academy 
since 1977, where ten of his students find part-time
employment each year. Matthews also sponsors
special events in the neighborhood, like festivals
with games, rides, and treats. On top of that, he
does street work, walking home kids he finds
hanging out too late.


Matthews’ shop and academy is a leaky building with a huge assortment of shoes. Customers get no tickets—he matches faces with shoes. This practice is a symbol of the importance of relationships he passes on to his students. His nickname comes from an old Volkswagon (The Bug) he keeps tinkering with and drives.

Because he stuttered as a boy, a teacher advised him to learn a trade. So, he did study a trade (shoe repair), but added to that a degree in sociology and anthropology. Before then, his stuttering had disappeared.

"With encouragement I could have spent less time in remedial classes...You have a lot of time to think when you stutter because people don’t have the patience to talk to you...I said, ‘Well, I’m going to come up with a place where people can go and get everything they need to be a successful individual and a productive citizen."

Over the years, John Matthews has taken many kids off the streets, helped some out of the criminal justice system, set up summer employment programs, and taught nearly 500 students. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was funding for his programs. Most of that has now dried up, so Matthews has to get by with an occasional gift and his own money. Customers pay only for materials at the shoe academy.

"In the glory days, we had 12, 13 kids in here all the time," says Ernest Rivers, who was once a kid in Matthews’ program, and now runs his own pickup and delivery shoe-repair out of the same shop.

Stadford Brown, 10, is one of his present students who appreciates working with Matthews. He says, " ‘When I learn to repair shoes, I can make my own money.’ " He also plays quarterback for a team Matthews coaches.

It’s clearly people like Stadford and Ernest who matter most to Matthews.

"If I get a boy that’s in the 5th grade, I’m gonna check on him all the way through high school. I’ll check with the principal...You become a surrogate father. It’s consistent. There’s no clock. You do this 24 hours a day."

Nonprofit shoe repair school passes along the craft and gives youths a profession

His name is John Matthews, but to many residents in Southeast DC he’s known as “Peter Bug,” a nod to a Volkswagen beetle he’s been driving for years. Now, in addition to his nickname, John Matthews will also be known for having the 400 block of 13th Street SE named in his honor.

“Peterbug Matthews Way” was renamed last weekend in recognition of the time and dedication Matthews has put into mentoring area schoolchildren. A teacher at Spingarn High School, Matthews is also founder of the Peter Bug Shoe and Leather Academy, where area kids learn the value of working while repairing shoes.

A native Washingtonian, Matthews has spent decades as a role model to students, leading by example through his work with youth sports teams and other community events. Apart from an annual “Peter Bug Children’s Day” put on by “graduates” of the Academy to help raise money, the place runs largely on donations and funding from its owner. You can find Mr. Matthews at the Academy, located at 1320 E Street SE or reach him by phone at 202-689-4549.

So Peter bug shoe and leather Academy is a nonprofit cobbler school to teach the dying craft to foster youth ages 16-18. He said he plans is to teach 30-50 students how to repair shoes and other leather goods such as belts, luggage and coats.

Students will also be taught to take apart recycled shoes and make new shoes either for sale in the shop to reinvest in the program, or to donate to groups such as Soles4Soles, an organization that sends shoes to Africa for those who need them.

The Academy will use any good leather or parts, and any donated or recycled shoes that can be reconditioned for sale.

Bragging rights
street name Peter bug Matthews Way

This sign in Southeast DC had me intrigued.
As it turns out, there is an interesting story behind it.