Eastport, Maine, has always looked to the sea for its identity and the livelihoods of its 1,900 residents. When the last of its 18 sardine canneries closed in the 1980s, salmon farming, scalloping, and diving for sea urchins filled in—but the town’s economic life has never ceased being hard and uncertain.
I first met Shirl Penney in fall 2006 in his Manhattan-skyscraper office, where he worked for one of the nation’s top wealth-management firms. Though not yet 30 years old, he had already caught the attention of many financial experts and journalists. His extraordinary journey — from a childhood spent in desperate poverty in Eastport, Maine, to a career as one of the most respected wealth managers in America — became the first story I wrote as the new editor of Yankee, in January 2007. Three years later Shirl became the cofounder, president, and CEO of Dynasty Financial Partners; not long after that, InvestmentNews named him one of the 40 most influential people in wealth management under the age of 40. But when I interviewed Shirl for Yankee, his strategies for achieving wealth never came up. That part of his life is for other media, other times. What matters here is his showing us that despite how much adversity descends on us, we can find a way to break through. —Mel Allen
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?”
“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.”