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Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine

Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine
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I am writing this for someone whose name I do not know, except I know you are a senior at Shead High School in Eastport, Maine, about as far Down East as you can travel before stepping into Canada. Your senior class holds only 37, and on graduation day one of you will receive the eighth Clarence E. Townsend Memorial Scholarship. There are no grade requirements. But one string is attached. You must have “overcome some degree of adversity … while maintaining a positive attitude.” You live where the surging tides of Passamaquoddy Bay leave visitors with their mouths open, but you also live in one of the poorest counties in America. Keeping a “positive attitude” I bet is sometimes shaky. Your scholarship is named for a man who has been dead for eight years. Clarence Townsend was one of those hard-working men whose life usually barely causes a ripple. If he stood out, it was because he was terribly self-conscious about a disfiguring birthmark. He worked in the sardine factories and distant quarries but mostly cleaned oil burners, never knowing a day when he wasn’t poor. There are lots of men like that where you live. Except he did one thing you should know about before you accept the scholarship bearing his name.

That’s what this is about. And about a boy.

When Shirl Penney was born on a December day in 1976, Clarence Townsend was 57 years old. He lived alone, in the midst of a divorce from Shirl’s grandmother. Shirl’s mother was one of many stepchildren who had come and gone from his life. “When my mother gave birth, she was just a kid,” Shirl says. “My father was from Canada and he was out of the picture.” But Clarence saw the baby boy in the hospital, bruised from a complicated birth, and he made a decision: He would not see the baby adopted. “It couldn’t happen many places other than rural Maine,” Shirl says, “but the hospital let Clarence, who was not a blood relative, take me home with him.”

Shirl called Clarence “Papa” or “Gramp” and they lived in a tumbledown house Clarence had bought for $600 up the hill from the bay. Clarence had no money for a car seat, so he got a handwoven basket from the Passamaquoddy Indian reservation, threw clothes in, and settled the baby inside. When he cleaned the furnaces, the basket and baby sat on top. During mackerel season he’d fill the freezer and they’d eat fish until they just couldn’t any longer. Neighbors ushered the growing boy into their homes for fresh bread and salads because, though Clarence was a loving man, he was not a good cook.

Age and ailments made it harder for Clarence to keep working. “We lived on $5,200 a year,” Shirl says. “We survived with welfare, Social Security, and food stamps. Still, he opened a savings account in my name. He’d put $5 in whenever he could. I remember him showing me the savings book and saying, ‘This is important.’” Clarence went to the local funeral home and asked what his burial would cost. He was told $2,000. From that day he tucked away $20 a month.

When Shirl was 12, the city condemned the house. “I came home from school one day and it was demolished. Gone. It was spring and we were homeless.” Clarence moved in with a brother in Calais and Shirl was taken in by Walter and Anita Lank, who lived nearby. “We didn’t know Shirl very well,” Anita says today. “But it’s just something you do. They needed help.” The Lanks had two other children and, like everyone else, they scraped by. Clarence came to visit nearly every day. The state bought building supplies, and carpentry students from the Indian reservation started to build Clarence and Shirl a new house. Two years later, the old man and the boy moved into a two-bedroom saltbox with insulation, a furnace, and their first shower. “To my granddad,” Shirl says, “it was heaven.”

Shirl was 14 then, a rawboned kid who raked blueberries in summer and played every sport he could. “I don’t remember many games he missed,” Shirl says. “Gramp never played sports. He didn’t know the rules. He’d get a ride with someone in town to all the games. He was so proud.”

School, sports, work, and Clarence defined Shirl’s days. He worked at the salmon farm. “It was brutal in winter,” Shirl says. “Your hands froze tight cleaning fish. As cold as it was inside, it was much colder on the boats. I earned extra cleaning the nets. The old pellets stuck to the nets, all the maggots too. We had eight to 10 men to a net and we pulled it up by hand. All that kelp and old food, pulling against the tide. You get spattered, your face covered, boots full of water. You stank. But you do what you have to do. You had a job.” Clarence never stopped telling him, “You need an education — you need to work with your mind, not your hands.”

One day Shirl watched a TV show about Wall Street. “It showed the stock exchange,” he says, “and for some reason I understood it. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” A friend told him, “There’s no one here who’s going to Wall Street. What are the odds?”

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