Doris Ola: 1923-2019

Doris Ola and her husband, Francis, started Ola’s Shoes in 1956 on Howard Street, where it operated continuously for 62 years before closing in 2018. Mrs. Ola died Tuesday at the age of 96.

Doris Ola could be both a loving, devoted mother and a determined businesswoman.

The longtime co-owner of Ola’s Shoes was in many ways ahead of her time in balancing family and work.

“She was smart, and she was tough,” said her oldest daughter, Elizabeth “Olie” Martin. “I mean this woman was a today’s woman.”

Mrs. Ola, 96, died Tuesday at Greenwood Leflore Hospital from longstanding heart problems.

A funeral Mass will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, where she was a longtime member. The service will be preceded by visitation at the church starting at 1 p.m.

Mrs. Ola was born in 1923 in Mobile, Alabama, to Lebanese immigrants who owned a grocery store and clothing store.

Family lore has it that in the early 1950s, Mrs. Ola, whose maiden name was Naman, was traveling through Greenwood with her mother on their way to see relatives in Texas. Out of curiosity, they stopped at Naaman and Ola’s, a department store on Carrollton Avenue, to see if there was a connection, even though their name was spelled slightly differently than the store’s.

Francis Ola worked there, and when he set his eyes on Doris Naman, it was magic, said Martin.

“He was not going to let her go after he saw her.”

The couple married in 1955. The following year, they went into business for themselves, opening Ola’s Shoes in a 600-square-foot downtown building.

They expanded twice over the years, and the store operated continuously for 62 years from that same 400 block of Howard Street until closing last year.

Mrs. Ola continued to work at the store into her 90s.

She ran the office and “was absolutely the best salesperson you’ll ever meet because she loved people and she loved taking care of people,” said her son Anthony Ola, the only one of the couple’s four children to return to Greenwood after graduating college and join the family business.

After Mrs. Ola’s husband died in 1989, she and Anthony became business partners. It was a great partnership, he said.

“I learned a lot from my mother. I learned how to work hard, how to treat people fair. I learned to enjoy my work.”

Ola’s Shoes often hired teenagers to their first “real job.”

Hair stylist Shelia Smith began working at the shoe store in 1993 when she was a senior in high school. She continued to do so for about five years, both while she was going through beauty school and even after she started cutting hair and doing perms.

Smith said Mrs. Ola expected her young charges to learn about shoes, to give good customer service and not goof off.

“They would always give you a list. You couldn’t just stand around if you were through with your list. You had to pretend to do something,” Smith said. “She was going to make you work.”

When she wasn’t selling shoes, Mrs. Ola loved to cook, care for her family and spend time with her friends.

In 1984, she was selected as the Commonwealth’s Mother of the Year.

In nominating her mother that year, Martin wrote, “She makes herself available to all of us 100 percent of the time. Any time we need to talk over a troubling matter, she is there, not to judge but to listen.”

Mrs. Ola developed close ties with other members of the Lebanese community in Greenwood, many of whom also made their living in retailing and attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.

One of her best friends was Louise Ellis. Their friendship lasted some six decades until Mrs. Ellis died in 2016.

“Doris and Lou,” as they called each other, talked on the phone two or three times a day, said Phil Ellis Jr., Mrs. Ellis’ son. Every Sunday afternoon the women would drive out to Odd Fellows Cemetery to visit where their husbands were buried — “to check on the boys,” they would say.

They frequently cooked together. One of Mrs. Ola’s specialties was spinach or meat pies, hand-formed into small semicircles of deliciously thin dough.

“Man, if you had one, you’d be looking for the next one, I’ll tell you,” Phil Ellis said.

When asked to sum up his mother, Anthony Ola said she exuded love.

“She loved life. She loved everything about it. She loved her work. Loved her family. Loved her church. Loved her friends and relatives. She loved everybody and everything. She lived for her family, and she got the absolute most out of every day.”

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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