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Shoe-shiner who raised $202K for UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh dies at 76

Natasha Lindstrom
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The part-time shoe-shiner passed along his tips discreetly, a few hundred dollars at a time.

But the donations over decades added up, and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh leaders began to take notice that Albert Lexie was more than a friendly face toting a purple cart of brushes, soaps and polish through their halls twice a week.

The Monessen native had become one of the most notable individual donors in the institution’s history.

“He just started making donations. It was very quiet at first, and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow, he’s raised over $100,000,’” recalled UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh President Chris Gessner. “He’s the perfect example of how small, incremental acts of kindness can end up having an impact on millions of people.”

Lexie died early Tuesday of an undisclosed health condition, hospital officials said. He was 76.

Hospital workers remembered Lexie as a jovial, hard-working community servant who devoted more than three decades to helping local children obtain critical health care. From 1982 to 2014, Lexie donated more than $202,000 in shoe-shining tips toward his favorite cause — the hospital’s Free Care Fund for under- and uninsured children in Western Pennsylvania.

“He was an inspiration for us all. His kindness and selflessness just really role-modeled the spirit of philanthropy,” Gessner said. “And we’ll miss him, but we really appreciate what he’s done for the hospital and for his kids (patients at the hospital), as he referred to them.”

Just about every Tuesday and Thursday for 31 years, Lexie woke as early as 2 a.m. to begin his three-bus trek from his Monessen home to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, first when it was located in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood and more recently in Lawrenceville.

“Albert probably shined tens of thousands of shoes over those years — that’s something he could do well, and he wanted to have an impact,” Gessner said.

Gessner recalled his first introduction to Lexie, who already was a fixture when Gessner began work for the hospital about 18 years ago. Gessner arrived for a meeting perplexed to observe that more than half the people seated around a conference table were shoeless.

“Because Albert was in the hallway shining their shoes,” Gessner recalled. “It wasn’t unusual to see people in their socks or carrying around extra bags of shoes on days when Albert was making his rounds.”

Lexie, who had a developmental disability, made his first shoeshine box in a shop class at Monessen High School. He became interested in fundraising after he watched the late KDKA-TV newscaster Patti Burns during one of Children’s telethons in 1981. He had a crush on Burns and gave her a kiss the next year while delivering his first donation of $700.

As his donations accumulated, Lexie’s efforts garnered national acclaim, earning him an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a network TV interview with broadcast journalist Jane Pauley and recognition by People Magazine in 2010. The Caring Institute gave Lexie its 2006 National Caring Award. Major League Baseball named the big-time baseball and Pirates fan one of 30 “All Stars Among Us,” and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans.

But Gessner’s favorite moments with Lexie were the quieter ones, such as when Lexie shared with him fond memories of his mother singing gospel music to him as a child.

“He was sort of the eternal optimist. He’s very kind, considerate, and he’s a very spiritual, very religious man,” Gessner said. “I think he liked the fact that he could shine shoes and talk to people at the same time. He was very much a people person.”

Lexie retired from shoe-shining about four years ago, when his health worsened, Gessner said. Lexie was close to his sister and his mother, Gessner said.

“I don’t have a favorite memory,” Lexie told the Trib shortly before he retired his shoe-shining kit in 2013. “I just love the kids.”

Lexie’s family could not be reached for comment.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh raises about $1.6 million a year for its Free Care Fund, which helps the hospital fulfill its commitment to treat any child who lives within 250 miles of Pittsburgh, even if they are uninsured. For more information or to make a donation, visit GiveToChildrens.org/lexie/ .

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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