Triple Crown Leather Goods is retired Army aviator’s winning ticket
By Lynn Ascrizzi
How many people can point to a specific month and day on the calendar and declare that it marks the beginning of a new chance at life? But for David (“Dave”) Botelho, who lives with his wife, Maria, in Paducah, Kentucky, the transforming event associated with his brand-new start, arrived unannounced on May 2, 2020.
Before this turning point, Botelho, 59, already had under his belt a dedicated and highly active, 26-year military career, first as an enlisted man in both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, and then, as an Army aviator. Among his many other duties, he piloted both Black Hawk Assault and Apache Attack helicopters. And, in 2003, he was deployed as Battalion Aviation Safety Officer during the conflict, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After retiring officially from military service in 2006, he was hired by the Department of the Army as a DoD Civilian (a Federal civilian employee of the Department of Defense), to be an Airfield Safety Officer.
In 2013, he and Maria relocated to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he served at Godman Army Airfield. “My wife and I were very happy to be back in Kentucky where all of our children and their families would eventually settle down,” he said.
But on an early spring day in 2020, he suffered two heart attacks. “The first put me in the hospital; the second put me in cardiac arrest. I died for four minutes,” he said, in a calm, straightforward way. “They had to (shock) paddle me to get the heart rhythm back and put a stent in a major artery that was 100 percent blocked.”
For most of us, that kind of crisis doesn’t exactly cut it as a positive game changer. But these days, Botelho sees it differently. “Every May 2 will now be celebrated for my second chance at life,” he said, with cheerful resolve. “I knew I wanted to retire after my heart attack. But the bottom line was, I didn’t want to sit around the house and do yard work. I wanted to put my hand to something.”
Around that time, he came across a YouTube video that featured a professional leatherworker. “He was a young fella — Parker Litchfield, of Ogden, Utah. His company is Stock & Barrel. This guy had so much energy and passion, and he did leatherwork in a lighthearted and fun way. I saw his excitement, and it sparked something in me: ‘Hey, I want to do this!’ “
His prior leatherwork experience was crafting a leather belt in shop class at Hilo High School, in Hilo, Hawaii, the island where he was born and raised. “That belt lasted 20 years,” he recalled. He gained an appreciation for shop tools from his dad, Joseph Botelho, Sr. “He used to build furniture for my mom, and in later years made dinette sets,” his son said. Years later, he did a bit of woodworking in his own home workshop, making small items, like cutting boards, for friends and family.
Yet, even before watching that galvanizing YouTube video, he had been putting ideas together to get into leatherwork. A resilient, fast learner with a talent for military decisiveness, he launched Triple Crown Leather Goods on July 1, 2020, only two months after his health crisis. His first sale, a set of leather horseshoe coasters, occurred on a highly significant day in America — Sept. 11. To mark the sale, he framed a one-dollar bill behind glass. “My brother Joey told me, ‘Man, now you’re in deep,’ “ he recalled, with humor.
“I am now happily retired and doing what I want to do, which is to create leather goods,” he said, this past September. “As a soldier, I’d salute the flag, be willing to fly into conflicts, like flying the borders of Iraq and Kuwait after Operation Desert Fox, make it back and thank the Lord for a safe trip. Now, I look forward to going into my shop, cutting leather and developing quality leather products.”
Maria plays a helpful, supportive role in her husband’s new enterprise. “It’s exciting, because when I first saw the things he created, I thought: ‘Oh my — these are really wonderful!’ And, it’s fun to see that other people see that, too.”
A professional artist for 38 years, she creates finely detailed, pen-and-ink images of houses, children, pets, racehorses, and more. Her background enables her to appreciate the level of artistry in her husband’s leatherwork venture. “He creates his own designs — not just taking ready-made patterns. He is very particular, and his attention to detail is amazing,” she said.
She also sews the lightweight, drawstring bags used to cover and protect items like totes and handbags, during shipping. The cotton bags bear the company logo depicting a racehorse’s head encircled by a laurel wreath. “I’m happy to help out,” she added, “but the actual leather work is really all him.”
AT THE SHOP
Botelho’s home workshop is based in a 1,200 square foot, three-car garage. “Eighty percent is filled with household items. I operate in 20 percent of that space. It was air conditioned, so I could work out there. I have a good, 4-by-8-foot workbench and an additional butcher-block counter. Full workshop storage space was already here, with a pegboard that I can hang tools on.”
He’s out in the shop four-to-five days per week, crafting leather goods, a line that includes totes, handbags, wallets, cell phone cases, key fobs, coasters, portfolios, dopp kits, valet trays, snap wallets, and more. His classic designs are sleek, clean and pleasingly simple.
On a recent September day, he was at the bench working on a tote. “I have it all cut out and ready to put together. It’s a chestnut color. I try to stick with black and chestnut. When it comes to fall and winter, black is trendy; in spring and summer, it’s chestnut.” He enjoys working with full-grain leather. “It’ll last a long time,” he said.
“I’ve always liked leather, like leather jackets,” he added. “I’m a rookie, but I’ve read up a bit on leather.” His primary source is American Leather Direct, of Bowling Green, Kentucky. “They give great customer service, and their speed of delivery is second to none. I’ve also purchased leather from Thoroughbred Leather,” he said, of the company based in Louisville, Kentucky. “Their company president has been very positive and helpful in the selection of the best kind of leather to be used on a project.”
Early in his startup phase, he sourced machines from Weaver Leather Supply of Mount Hope, Ohio. He decided to order the Mighty Wonder, a 4-ton clicker press, now anchored on his workshop bench. And he purchased the company’s Little Wonder, for setting snaps, rivets, caps, and the like. “I use it quite a bit on some of my products. It’s very handy. Having a clicker and die cutter cuts down on production time.”
All the straps on his leather totes and handbags are cranked out manually with the strap cutter. “You can buy different spacers to set the size of the strap,” he explained. He uses the Master Tool EZ Edge Strap Beveler, also from Weaver Leather Supply. “You set it to the width of the leather, and as you pull it through, the strap edges get a beveled, finished look,” he said. “To make holes in leather, I like to use a stitching chisel. I use that more than a rotary cutter.”
Recently, he ordered a Cobra Class 26 sewing machine from Springfield Leather, of Springfield, Missouri. “Right now, I do all hand stitching, but a sewing machine will increase production,” he said.
For hand sewing, he uses Ritza 25 Tiger Thread, a waxed polyester from the online retailer, Buckleguy, a leathercraft supplier. “I use black thread, primarily,” he said. One of his favorite tools is Fiskars Rotary Cutter. “I use it to cut out most of my leather products.”
From the get-go, Botelho received positive feedback for his leatherwork from close-knit family members. “There’s 20 of us, total. I have two daughters, one son, a daughter-in-law, two son-in-laws and 12 grandchildren. All of them live in Kentucky. They’re cheaper by the dozen, until Christmas,” he quipped.
Naming a number of custom products after members in his sizable family, has added to the enjoyment. “Our grandchildren’s name for my wife is Lolli. So, I’ve named my bestselling tote, the Lolli,” he said. The tote is handcrafted from 4-to-5-ounce, black bridle leather. Its straps have a 10-inch drop and are made from 8-to-9-ounce, black holster strap leather.
Other family names for his leather goods include the Mandy handbag, named after his oldest daughter. Its main body and pockets are made of 4-to-5-ounce, medium-brown bridle leather.
The Charis, a handbag named after his youngest daughter, is built with 4-to-5-ounce, New Haven strap leather and comes with a D-ring inside for attaching keys. And a crossbody handbag built from 5-to-6-ounce strap leather, is dubbed the Kelli, after his daughter-in-law.
“We have seven granddaughters. I have to design and make a few more handbags named after them,” he said.
Sales are made largely by word of mouth. Orders from folks who learn about his leather products from their friends, or on Instagram, have increased roughly 25 percent. For instance, a family friend asked him to make a money pouch for her husband. Botelho calls it the Paducah Leather Pouch. “It’s named after Joseph, one of my son-in-laws.”
Creating a website is on his to-do list. But for now, he gets sufficient action from his Instagram site. “A product gets out on Instagram, people see it and contact me,” he said…
To date, his most expensive item is a larger version of the Lolli, called the Grand Lolli, priced at $325. The Lolli is $285. “I learned from Stock & Barrel that to estimate a price, you have to figure leather cost, time and hardware. To get a total for a wholesale price, the advice is to multiply those costs, by two. Currently, I’m selling at wholesale prices. However, once I establish a website, I’m looking forward to going retail. Since I’m new to this, I’ll have to learn how to get through the transition from wholesale to retail.
Not surprisingly, the Christmas season is his busiest. “I’m not doing this for a job. I’m doing this because it’s fun,” he said, noting that on Christmas Day, he turns 60. Does he foresee he might get swamped with more orders than he could handle? “I might have to give people an advisory note that their order may take two to three weeks,” he speculated. “A hand-sewn product takes about seven days, from the order date, to arriving. In the future I hope to reduce production time with the Cobra.”
Also, he likes to make room for customizing. “A tote is a tote. But I can add finer details on it. Maria needed a place for her cell phone, so I put a pocket in the tote. Inside, there are two D-rings for key fobs. I put a Made in Kentucky stamp on that inner pocket.”
And he’s open to new ideas. “My wife picked up an old handbag that was probably made in the ’30s or ’40s. We liked the style. So, I tweaked it to create the Charis handbag design.” Recently, he has been looking into adding zippers to certain products. Zippers are already used on the dopp bags.
Looking further down the road, he hopes that one day, if not his children, that some of the grandkids might pick up an interest in leatherworking. Warm memories of the workshop and its resident leatherworker are being made, already.
“When the kids want to know where ‘Papa’ is at, they’ll come over to the workshop. My granddaughter, Georgia, age 6, likes to help out. She sees me sewing and wants to try it out, too. I help her do things, in little ways. My granddaughter went away with a leather bracelet. “The next thing I knew, my grandson, Booker, came over and wanted a key chain. He is the twin of Georgia. And Shep, my 2-year-old grandson, will dance to the music that I have playing in my shop and brighten up the room.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF MY MILITARY SERVICE
After serving seven years as an enlisted man (four years in the U.S. Air Force and three years in the U.S. Army), I graduated from Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in September 1988, as a Warrant Officer One. I was then assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, as a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter pilot.
Briefly, as a Black Hawk pilot in command, I provided air assault, general support, command and control, as well as support to the ground commander. The Black Hawk’s primary mission is to transport troops and equipment into battle. The Black Hawk is also used for humanitarian missions.
On March 29, 1991, Cyclone Marian hit the southeast coast of Bangladesh, causing death and destruction throughout the area. My Black Hawk unit out of the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, deployed with our helicopters and soldiers, to Bangladesh, to fly food and supplies to the most devastated parts of the country. Of the many missions that I have flown throughout Asia, Australia and the United States, Operation Sea Angel stands as the one mission that I was a part of, that made a direct impact on the lives of our fellow man.
In 1997, I attended the AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter Transition Course at Fort Rucker. Upon graduation, I was assigned to the “Expect No Mercy,” 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The aviators, and soldiers of that battalion were some of the finest professionals I ever served with, in my military career.
As an AH-64A Apache Attack Helicopter pilot in command, when called upon, I was to destroy enemy forces and equipment on the battlefield. In 1999, after Operation Desert Fox, my Attack Battalion, deployed to Kuwait to provide combat air patrols at the border of Kuwait and Iraq. The missions flown there were a show of force to Iraq, as well as a security buffer to the country of Kuwait. While in Kuwait, our Attack Battalion accomplished our missions with no accidents or injuries to the soldiers in our battalion.”
In 2000, due to a medical condition, I was medically grounded from being able to fly. I was then assigned to the 8th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, as the Battalion Aviation Safety Officer. In 2003, I deployed with the 8th Battalion to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky from Iraq, in January 2004, I was reassigned early in July, to Hunter Army Airfield, Savannah, Georgia to serve as the Airfield Safety Officer. This would be my last assignment as an active duty military soldier. I officially retired from active military service on February 1, 2006, as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.
“Next, I was hired by the Department of the Army and became the Hunter Army Airfield Safety Officer, as a DoD Civilian. In 2013, my wife Maria and I relocated to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for me to become Airfield Safety Officer at Godman Army Airfield.
I officially retired from the Department of the Army on December 31, 2020. “I now spend my time with family, enjoying our 12 grandchildren and creating some really nice leather goods.”
— David Botelho
Triple Crown Leather Goods
David (“Dave”) Botelho, owner, operator