Modern-day shoemaker works to give back to community

The Peter Bugs Shoe Repair Academy in Southeast D.C. is full of history, life, and opportunity for anyone who comes in.

A native to D.C., John “Peter Bugs” Matthews is like the modern-day sShoemaker who continuously gives back to his community.

Matthews did not have it easy early in life. He struggled in school and developed a stutter. He said he was mistreated by teachers and brushed aside.

“I could have been the president but I’d be the first person on the short bus., I had a stutter and they took us and put people like us in the basement,” he said.

Matthews said he felt like this for most of his grade school experience until high school when he said he thought he caught a break. Bugs was placed in regular classes only to be told by his counselor that he had to attend a trade school.

“Not even 17 years old and I’m being discriminated against because of their mentality,” he lamented.

He may not have wanted to attend a trade school, but he went on to attend Phelps Vocational High school where he ended up in the shoe repair shop. He studied under Guy Panofino, a retired cColonel and an Italian shoemaker.

Immediately they connected, and Matthews said he didn’t feel so alone because Panofino also had a stutter. In the 12th grade, Panofino helped him get a two-year scholarship for shoe repair and boot making at the University of Oklahoma.

He later attended Federal City College, which is now known as the University of the District of Columbia. Graduating with a degree in sociology and anthropology, Matthews says that life after college was difficult at first because he couldn’t find a good paying job.

Matthews found a few jobs but said he knew he never wanted to work under anyone again. In May of 1977, he opened the Peter Bugs Shoe Repair Academy where he taught young men in the neighborhood how to make and repair shoes and work with leather.

Matthews stated, “this was also a rebirth for me, that’s where the name Peter Bugs came from.” 

Mike Banner, a former student, expressed his love for the program and how it pushed him in all aspects of life to become the absolute best version of himself. He said that working under Matthews, “deals with your soul and your potential.”   

Matthews made such an impact in his community that a block on 13th Street Southeast was renamed as “Peterbug Matthews Way” in recognition of his work.

“He’s very education oriented and always looking to help the youth in any way that he can. It’s the way we were raised, he had adults that helped him and he’s carrying it on,” said Sandra Owens, an old friend of Matthews.

His alumni group Shoe Shop Boyz, now Men of Matthews Way, helped him throw the Peter Bugs Day Festival to raise money for children. Some students still come back to visit him and keep in contact.

“If you look a wheel, there are several spokes in the wheel and the hub (center). Peter Bugs has been the hub in the wheel of the community for 41 years…The humble beginnings, the spokes, all lead back to the hub,” Banner said.