Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine
“To me, odds are irrelevant,” Shirl says. “I just knew that was what I was going to do.” He went to Bates College where, among other jobs, he bought antiques in Lewiston and sold them for profit on the newly launched eBay. He drove an old Dodge, paid college bills, and sent money home to Clarence for property taxes and heat. “I had to justify all the sacrifices he made for me.”
The summer after his junior year, Shirl interned at Citigroup/Smith Barney in Portland. When word came that Joe Mara, an executive from the New York headquarters was coming, “I begged for some time with him.” He was promised 30 minutes. “I had all my life experience. I had read everything on Smith Barney. I was ready.” He wore a suit he’d found at the Salvation Army for $13. “The legs were too short, the sleeves came to my wrist. I walked into the conference room. I said, ‘It’s hot in here; mind if I take off my coat?”’ Joe Mara gave him over an hour and said, “I’ve got to get you to New York.”
Shirl rode the bus from Maine, and when he arrived, he looked up at the first skyscrapers he’d ever seen. He told the corporate executives, “You’ll want me, because there will be a light on at 1 a.m. and somebody will be making sure we have the information to close a deal — and that someone will be me.” He went back during Christmas, when New York was blazing with lights. He’d done his work; he was hired and offered $55,000 a year. “There’s no one who will work harder,” he told them.
He would start right after graduation. His dreams were coming true, and he drove excitedly back to Eastport to find Clarence, to tell him everything, that now he could buy him a truck, and when he got home Clarence was furious because he had not wanted Shirl to see him. He had held his secret for weeks — he was dying of cancer. Shirl stayed with him as Clarence went in and out of the hospital, and then double pneumonia took what little strength Clarence had left. Graduation was a week away. “I was losing him quick. It was the most lonely feeling you could imagine. He was my only family.” Shirl called Bates and asked if they would do one thing — could they overnight his diploma. When the diploma came, Shirl held Clarence in his arms. “I said, ‘Gramp, we did it. Here’s our diploma. I’m giving it to you, Gramp.'” Clarence died with Shirl holding him the next morning. He had the key to Clarence’s safe-deposit box, and when he opened it he found Shirl’s photograph stapled to a note: “This is for my grandson to bury me.” Inside an envelope, Shirl found $2,000. Shirl buried him in Eastport, placing his diploma in Clarence’s hands and watching the coffin be lowered into the ground. The next day, Shirl marched with his graduation class, and then he went to New York.
So that is the story of Clarence Townsend. Shirl Penney has told me all this on a summer day in Manhattan on the 13th floor of a gleaming building just up from Times Square, overlooking Radio City Music Hall. This is Shirl Penney’s world now. He is tall, handsome, impeccably dressed. He lives with a beautiful wife and a baby daughter. Her name is Townsend. He is Citigroup/Smith Barney’s global director of business development for global wealth management advisory services, which means every day he deals with very rich people. Billionaires seek his advice. He owns a stable of racehorses called Team Penney. His favorite horse he named American Dream’a. He is not yet 30 years old. The first time his wife came to Eastport, she could not believe how everyone stopped to talk to Shirl. He is convinced he can find a way to bring industry back to this small city by the bay. He, of course, gave the money for your scholarship.
I don’t know who you are, but if you have a dream, you have a chance. Anita Lank, who watched Shirl Penney grow up, knows that: “When you come from Eastport, and you’ve worked the way Eastporters work, you’re sitting on top of the world.”