The letter, which comes with the promise of a check for $10,000, begins thusly: “I have recently developed a charitable program specifically designed to benefit municipalities such as yours … Due to the present economic conditions, I feel it might be an appropriate time to institute this program.”

Who, in this era of “grab hold of what you have and don’t let go,” would do such a thing?

Marshall L. “Jack” Gibson, that’s who.

“I never forget the things that people do for me,” Gibson, 82, said with a modest smile Monday in his South Portland office. “And I look at the entire state as my community.”

He has good reason.

Gibson was all of 16 when, way back in 1945, he launched what would become Commercial Paving & Recycling Co. He had a dump truck, an ironman’s work ethic – he first worked in the South Portland shipyards when he was 13 – and an abiding belief that if you treat people honestly and fairly, they’ll return the favor.

It worked.

For 59 years before he sold the business in 2004, Gibson was the go-to guy for road work in 175 municipalities across Maine. He sealed million-dollar deals with a handshake, called generation after generation of selectmen, road commissioners and town managers by their first names and, in the process, became a very wealthy, very generous businessman.

How wealthy?

Well, the Marshall L. and Susan Gibson Pavilion, Maine Medical Center’s state-of-the-art cancer-treatment center, sprouted from a $2 million gift in memory of Gibson’s first wife, Susan, who died from cancer in 1989.

How generous?

Every Sunday for the past 11 years, Gibson has returned to the Gibson Pavilion to visit the staff and patients and hand out packages of his Granny Kirkwood shortbreads – he bakes them himself, using a recipe that goes back five generations in his late wife’s Scottish family.

Then there’s Gibson’s support over the years for the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, the Liberty Ship Memorial at Bug Light in South Portland, Hospice of Southern Maine, Center Day Camp in Windham, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone … and, as of last month, the Marshall L. and Ruth-Anne (his wife for the last decade) Gibson Municipal Charitable Program.

It couldn’t be simpler: Each month for the next five years, Gibson will send a check for $10,000 to one of the 175 Maine municipalities with which his paving company did business between 1945 and 2004.

That’s 60 towns. That’s $600,000. And that, if it’s all still going well after five years, will be just the beginning.

The money comes with no strings attached, although Gibson “suggests” that the towns funnel it toward their children, their community centers or their elderly because, as he noted with a chuckle, “I happen to be one.”

“I don’t think he’s going to have many people say, ‘No thanks,’” mused Chris Lockwood, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, which is helping Gibson launch the effort. “This is a very extraordinary offer on his part.”

Gibson’s first 12 letters went out July 15 to parts of Maine where he felt the current economic downturn weighs the heaviest: Washburn, Mapleton, Littleton, Mars Hill, Fort Kent, Ashland and Van Buren in Aroostook County; Staceyville in Penobscot County; Norway and Peru in Oxford County; Machias in Washington County; Unity in Waldo County.

He addressed the letters to the current ranking administrative officials in the towns, and took the time to copy his contacts from years past, most of them long retired, “so they can bask in some of the glory” when the $10,000 checks arrive.

“I have not forgotten the loyalty and trust afforded me by the municipal officials and taxpayers of your community,” Gibson wrote. “I would greatly appreciate your assistance. If you are interested in applying for a grant, please complete the enclosed form. I look forward to hearing from you.”

In Norway, an appreciative board of selectmen voted recently to turn Gibson’s gift into $1,000 property-tax discounts for 10 elderly homeowners who are struggling, most in proud silence, to pay their tax bills.

Up in Mapleton, Town Manager Martin Puckett hopes to see much-needed repairs to the pavement around the municipal pool and new equipment for the nearby playground – all before the snow flies. With local taxes going up and state aid going down, Mapleton’s recreation budget hasn’t exactly been front-and-center the last few years.

“I was shocked,” said Puckett, recalling the day he opened Gibson’s letter. “I read it over and over … and then I went out and took some pictures and sent out a reply letter the next day.”

Puckett’s hope: Local businesses and residents will hear about Gibson’s gesture and pitch in themselves, stretching the $10,000 way beyond a few pallets of fresh paving stones and a new swing set.

“I’m hoping to hit a home run with this,” Puckett said.

Which, from where Gibson sits, is the point.

If he had his druthers, you wouldn’t even be reading about him right now. Gibson has never been one to toot his own horn about his philanthropic ways “because I’ve had friends like that and I don’t want to be like that. I like doing things – and I really don’t have to raise the flag every time I do something.”

But he figures the more news of his checks finds its way into the coffee shops and small-town newspapers all over Maine, the better the chance that other folks – some well-off like him, some not so much – will pick up his $10,000 ball and run with it.

“I know these are difficult times, but a lot of companies, they can do that,” Gibson said. “And some individuals can do it too.”

Turn elsewhere in today’s newspaper and you’ll likely see people with pockets as deep as Gibson’s euphemistically calling themselves “job creators” – whether they’re actually creating jobs or not.

You’ll also see a whole lot of hand-wringing as stock portfolios tank and gold futures, which surged to a record $1,782.50 on Tuesday, beckon to those hell-bent on protecting their fortunes while there’s still time.

So what makes a guy like Jack Gibson so different?

“I can only wear one pair of pants at a time and I can only drive one car at a time,” he replied, again smiling. “What am I going to do with all that money?”

The best thing anyone in his position can ever do.

He’s putting it back where he found it.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]