It was something just short of a Christmas miracle to 82-year-old Jim Blackburn of Decatur.
Last week, the owner and operator of Decatur Shoe Repair on Fourth Avenue Southeast discovered more than $4,000 in engraving and lawn care equipment was stolen from his storage garage in Southwest Decatur. He said the theft would cost him about 40 percent of his holiday business.
Thursday, he received a cashier’s check for $5,000 from a pair of sisters, total strangers who read about his misfortune and felt compelled to help.
Sarah Belle, of Iowa City, Iowa, and her sister Anne Louise Wallace, of Manhattan, are his angels, he said.
“This is a blessing from heaven. It has to be,” a tearful Blackburn told Wallace during a phone call after receiving the surprise gift.
He told Belle she and her sister are “God’s messengers” during a phone call with her.
“God bless you, God bless you,” he repeated several times with both sisters.
Wallace, a stage manager with NBC-New York, said she was working with Lester Holt in Washington on the death of former President George H.W. Bush when she received a link to Blackburn’s story on decaturdaily.com Tuesday morning from a former Moline, Ill., high school friend, Pam Grisham Palmer, of Decatur. Palmer could not be reached Thursday afternoon.
“I texted my sister and told her we have to do something for this poor man,” said Wallace, who helped produce and direct "The Cosby Show" sitcom for seven years.
Belle, a retired research nurse, said she read the article and “felt his pain.” She also had a family connection to the shoe business.
The family of her deceased husband Haywood Belle owned and operated the first African-American business in Iowa City — Short’s Shoe Repair and Dye — in 1920. She said the business landed a military contract during World War II and the operation flourished. The shoe business closed in 1970 and the site is now a restaurant called Short’s Burgers and Shines.
“What a sweet man,” Belle said after talking with Blackburn. “He’s so grateful. You hate to make somebody cry, but at least it was tears of joy. The check will give him some wiggle room to replace what he lost.”
The sisters said they haven’t given a donation of that size in the past.
“In 2017, we went on a mission trip to Haiti,” Wallace said. “It makes you feel good to really give help to somebody who truly needs it.”
An internet donation page has been set up to help Blackburn, too. As of Thursday afternoon, $660 had been raised from 17 donors.
Blackburn said he grew up in Mullins Flat, where Redstone Arsenal now sits. He said he started shining shoes for money when he was 14 to get out of the cotton fields.
He plans to use the funds to replace the stolen engraver and hopefully upgrade his patching and finisher machines. He said his wife Thelma, 90, is home recovering from a heart attack and was going to be shocked to hear the good news of the generosity.
“Those two women are just angels,” he said. “They’re just amazing. I don’t know how to thank them. God bless the ground they walk on.”
The sisters sent their check to The Decatur Daily office for delivery to Blackburn.
Decatur Police spokeswoman Emily Long said the department is investigating the theft.
"The case is still under investigation, and our detectives are actively pursuing leads at this time," she said.