A drive on Shelbyville’s near east side last week evoked memories of Risley’s Kitchen Specialists and owner Joe Risley.
Joe operated his cabinet business at 212 E. Broadway St. (photo) and consistently demonstrated an earnest commitment to his customers over the course of the company’s four decades. He designed kitchens throughout central Indiana and his customers included many celebrated individuals and entities. He endeared himself to the local community with a congenial demeanor and benevolent spirit that made him a popular and valued figure throughout Shelby County.
Risley died on Jan. 22 at the age of 93. A recent memorial service for the former Shelbyville resident revealed a life filled with business success, significant experiences and satisfying relationships.
Joe Risley was born in 1929 in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis. His early memories included attending opening night at the Vogue Movie Theatre on College Avenue in 1938. The Vogue currently serves as one of Indiana’s most historic and popular music venues. He also remembered his father teaching him to swim in White River.
The Risley family moved to the Brookfield community in northwestern Shelby County in 1939. His father worked for Capitol Dairies.
Joe played basketball and softball at Moral High School. He was particularly proud of striking out Shelbyville basketball great Emerson Johnson when Moral played the Shelbyville High School baseball team.
Following graduation in 1947, Joe began working for C.C. Hicks Furniture in downtown Indianapolis, functioning in a variety of capacities.
“I was basically a gopher the first year,” Joe wrote. “I moved into being a shipping clerk and later working in the showroom.”
That introduced him to the world of furniture and eventually led to his interest in the cabinet business.
He met Marge Cook at the 1948 Marion County Fair and was immediately smitten. Marge was a 1947 Shelbyville High School graduate. They began dating and married in 1950.
Joe was drafted in 1951 and wound up stationed in France. He started in the signal corps then became a company clerk. He was a competent typist and, consequently, was able to land a position as assistant editor and writer for the weekly newsletter. The publications editor was Ed Asner, who would go on to become a prolific actor and played the iconic Lou Grant on the historic television series “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Asner and Risley (photo) forged a genuine friendship that would last the rest of their lives. The two former soldiers reunited after one of Asner’s performances at Butler University’s Clowes Hall in 2009.
“That was a very satisfying reunion,” said Joe’s son Mark. “Ed left tickets for our family at the box office and we met him afterward. We all truly enjoyed the evening.”
Asner died in August of last year.
Joe returned to C.C. Hicks following his 1953 discharge from the service. He and Marge settled on Shelbyville’s west side, eventually moving into 440 W. Washington St. in 1966. The Risleys maintained that residence until 2001.
The couple welcomed children Mark, born in 1956, and Leigh, born in 1958 to the family. Both would go on to graduate from Shelbyville High School with Mark becoming a well-known WSVL Radio personality and salesman from 1971 through 1984.
Joe indulged his enthusiasm for sports and played basketball for a number of men’s teams in leagues throughout the area.
“The C.C. Hicks Company sponsored us,” wrote Joe. “I also played for the Moral Township Athletic Association team and several teams in the Shelbyville leagues.”
He was proud to have played at the Dearborn Hotel Gym on E. Michigan St. in Indianapolis.
“Some great players played there,” he continued. “I remember playing against Gordon King from Tech High School, who was a 1947 Indiana All-Star.”
The Dearborn gym was a small cinder-block structure with a 75-foot-long court (nine feet shorter than today’s regulation high school court). The state’s best players competed in the rudimentary facility from the early 1950s until the early 1970s. Oscar Robertson, former Pacer Jerry Harkness and former Indiana All-Star Willie Gardner are all Dearborn alumni.
“I became a much better player after high school,” Joe once said. “I appreciated the opportunities to play as an adult. Those were fun times.”
The Hicks Company began to have Marsh cabinet displays in their showroom. Joe asked if he could sell the cabinetry in Shelbyville for a commission. Risley’s MAJOR Cabinet Sales was born. The MAJOR was an acronym for Marge, Joe and Risley.
Joe’s first sale was in 1954 to a family on Conrey Street.
“Two wall cabinets for over her washer and dryer,” wrote Joe.
In 1961, Joe set up the company at 212 E. Broadway, a location that would become emblematic of quality cabinet installation and kitchen remodeling to a generation of Shelbyville residents.
General Electric built a massive plant in Shelbyville in the mid-50s and the city was expanding residential areas due to the influx of people. That presented a prime opportunity for Joe to develop his business. Risley’s Kitchen Specialists flourished from that point forward.
In the early 1970s, Joe established a cabinet-sales enterprise in Carmel, which was beginning to grow, and that provided Joe the opportunity to tap into a new market. While working as president of Carmel Kitchens, Joe sold to Indiana Pacers coach Bob Leonard and his wife, Nancy. He later designed a kitchen for long-time Pacers’ trainer David Craig.
The Risley’s Kitchen brand became increasingly popular in the greater Indianapolis area.
”He was able to capitalize on the Indianapolis market,” said Mark. “I remember one year he had four out of the nine kitchens at the Home-A-Rama at Geist.”
Joe sold two kitchens to Dorothy Mengering, David Letterman’s mother (she remarried after Dave’s father died). She and her husband saw the Risley’s product at the Indy Home Show and had cabinets installed at their home in the Glendale area of Indianapolis and later at their Carmel home.
“David Letterman would have his mother (photo) live on TV standing and talking in her kitchen,” wrote Joe. “My Kitchen. She was always so kind and treated me so nicely.”
He participated in a number of Shelbyville community projects. He was a member of a group that initiated the post prom program, which provided entertainment and supervision for high school students after the prom. Post proms are common today but were just beginning to be held in the sixties.
Joe was chairman of a committee for the local Exchange Club that brought the Harlem Globetrotters to Shelbyville three times in six years in the late sixties and early seventies.
“We never got the first team of Globetrotters but the ones who came were excellent,” wrote Joe.
The games were held at Shelbyville High School at what is now William L. Garrett Gymnasium. It is true that well-known team superstars such as Meadowlark Lemon and Marcus Haynes never played at Shelbyville. However, Herbert “Geese” Ausbie and Robert “Showboat” Hall represented the Globetrotters here and gave the large crowd a remarkable show. Ausbie would go on to be one of the most recognizable Globetrotters in franchise history.
Joe was enamored with golf and it became one of his life’s pleasures. He took special joy in competing in golf tournaments and playing regular dates with friends.
“Mark and I won a couple Father/Son Golf Tournaments at the Elks Club,“ wrote Joe.
He also scored two hole-in-ones during his career and was named the Club’s outstanding golfer one year.
He derived tremendous enjoyment from playing golf with friends such as Carroll Theobald, Jerry McCracken, Gene Lusk and Jack Eiler.
Eiler was once quoted as saying that, “there was no one more fun on a golf course than Joe Risley.”
Joe enjoyed regular weekly rounds of golf with cohorts Del Coryea and Jerry Martin. Shelbyville businessman Keith Limpus recalls playing with the group in the 1980s: “They were all 30 or more years older than I was,” said Limpus. “I really enjoyed being around them. They were amazing golfers who routinely shot in the 70s. I learned a lot from them. I played every week with them for a couple of years. They were exceptional people.”
“Dad was very proud that he was able to shoot his age when he was in his seventies,” stated Mark.
Joe sold Risley’s Kitchen in 2001 and he and Marge moved to Fishers. Marge survived two bouts with breast cancer. She was thankful to have been a 40-year cancer survivor.
She died in 2016 at the age of 86.
Mark and Leigh currently live in Fishers. They served as caregivers for their parents during their final years.
A new building stands at the former site of Risley’s Kitchen Specialists. Joe Risley has not lived or done business in Shelbyville for more than 20 years. Still, when many of us long-time Shelbyville residents travel on E. Broadway, we see, if only for a moment in our mind’s eye, the Risley’s sign.
That is understandable.
Joe Risley left his mark on Shelbyville.