At 14, William Lee Collins liked the looks of the shoe business. His father was foreman in a shoe factory and St. Louis was a shoe town. So Willie Collins left school after the eighth grade and went to work for International Shoe Co., neatly inking the edges of soles for $3 a week. Last week, at 36, as he settled down to his new job as president of Hamilton-Brown Shoe Co., oldest in the Middle West, the shoe business still looked good to him.

When Hamilton-Brown was in its heyday 20 years ago,...

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