'High Energy' man sparks students with scholarship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles S. Benjamin makes a statement every time he gets dressed.

One day last week, he sported a silk purple- and green-striped coordinated outfit. It had baggy pants and a short-sleeved collarless top. He wore it with wavy-striped blue socks and loafers. His curly shoulder-length hair, beard and mustache are streaked liberally with gray.

But what is he saying? Is it a put-on?

"I'm an unusual-looking guy for a businessman. I'm a hip businessman, not a hippie. Hip is a thought process, not the way you look," said the man whose furious pace personifies his company's name, "High Energy -- Tomorrow's Fashions Today."

"I'm the same way with a banker and a 17-year-old kid. It's the way I am. I used to dress preppie at City College, but I changed with the times. I create high energy," the 48-year-old Pimlico native continued in his rapid-fire, salesman's-patter way of speaking.

But beneath the flamboyant appearance and the marketing smarts lives another Charles Benjamin, a guy whose early education was on the streets of Northwest Baltimore, playing sports and making his buddies laugh with impromptu comic shticks -- and doing without a lot of things.

That other Charles Benjamin was on display June 9 at Coppin State College, when he handed Timothy Long, 17, valedictorian of Frederick Douglass High School's Class of 1991, a $5,000 check and promised the young man another each year until he finishes college -- if he keeps his grades up.

"One of my biggest mistakes wasnot going to college," Mr. Benjamin said. "It has hurt me, not financially, but culturally."

By 1983, Mr. Benjamin had made his first pile and "retired" at age 40 as senior vice president of the Merry-Go-Round clothing chain. But after four years of "working out" and "playing the stock market," he needed to scratch the itch to do something more, so he returned to the business world.

It has led him to open 11 stores in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, eight in the last year, specializing in brightly colored, trendy "forward fashion" clothing.

"I opened the last six stores without going to the bank in a recession; that's never been done before," he said.

Mr. Benjamin's stores cater to a young, black clientele -- his two main branches are at Mondawmin Mall and Reisterstown Road Plaza -- which, along with his lack of a college education, inspired the scholarship offer.

"These people have helped me to build my business, and I felt I had to give something back. It's not a conscience thing; it's a proper thing to do. I think it's proper ethics," he insists. "I'm going to do a scholarship every year as long as I can."

Everywhere I go I hear, 'I'm different, colorful,' " Mr. Benjamin said. "I consider myself an older guy who can relate to young people. I understand their music, and I understand marketing, too. I'm very familiar with black music from Motown to hip-hop rap; I've been able to relate to this."

His comfortable relationship with blacks extends beyond his personal life to his business. "I have 116 employees, and eight of them are white," Mr. Benjamin said.

When he had the idea for a scholarship for minority city students, Mr. Benjamin said he approached three other clothing retailers about six months ago to chip in. "I said, 'We're doing business in the black community; we should give something back.' But they all turned me down. So I decided to do it myself."

Mr. Benjamin told Rudolph J. Redd, 67, a retired engineer who does the electronics and security work for the stores. Mr. Redd agreed to pass it along to his friend Alice G. Pinderhughes, former city school superintendent.

Mr. Benjamin -- an enthusiastic jock -- first proposed an athleticscholarship, Mr. Redd said, "but I said, 'No, we need more based on scholarship; we have more than enough for sports,' and Charles agreed."

After discussing various ways to distribute the award, it was decided to divide it between Douglass and Northwestern High Schools, which are in the area of the first two High Energy stores, Mr. Redd said.

But Timothy Long's record of academic and school leadership ** was so outstanding that he was recommended for the entire award himself this year, said Douglass Principal Jean Owens.

"I had to meet him and take him to lunch to see for myself who they had recommended," Mr. Benjamin said. Once he met the young man, he concurred with the choice completely.

Timothy, who plans to major in microbiology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said he was taken aback initially by Mr. Benjamin's "flashy" appearance but quickly found "a generous, quality person who wants to give something back to the community."

"He's a street man; he came from the street," Mr. Redd said of Mr. Benjamin. "He's extremely generous, andhe doesn't do it for show. He's a nice person, the most unusual person I've ever seen in my life."

"He's always been an individual involved with fashion, and it's always different, like his sunglasses with one square lens and one round lens," said Mr. Redd, who opened his own consulting firm after after he retired as a civilian engineer at Edgewood Arsenal.

"He's unorthodox and colorful in his appearance, which makes him more appealing to youngsters. They are flamboyant these days," said Jacquelyn Hardy, who, as special assistant for education to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, helped to set up the scholarship award.

"He thinks big, and he creates an aura of 'go-for-it,' and that's what these kids need. A lot of these kids are lacking hope, and then along comes this character who says, 'Think big, and it's all yours.' This makes him appealing. And he's an excellent role model for other businessmen, too," Ms. Hardy said.

Mr. Benjamin grew up in Pimlico, the son of a well-known fight trainer and fight-bar owner, Benny Benjamin. He hung out at the Hilltop Diner, at Reisterstown Road and Rogers Avenue, made famous by Barry Levinson's 1982 film.

He graduated in 1960 from Baltimore City College into a four-year Air Force hitch, much of it in Tripoli, Libya. Once discharged, he worked at various civilian jobs in Los Ange

les and Baltimore before the late Harold N. Goldsmith, another of the diner guys, invited him to join the newly-forming Merry-Go-Round clothing chain in 1970.

"I opened their first store, in Atlanta," Mr. Benjamin said. "Then I opened 17 more stores for them all over the East." He became national field supervisor for the chain and had a company award named for him.

In 1983, Mr. Benjamin began a hiatus which lasted four years before he returned to the business world, competing directly with the new management at his old company. "I decided that since I had done this for someone else, I could do it for myself," he said. Apparently, he has more than succeeded.

Mr. Benjamin claims millionaire status and proudly shows photos of his Lutherville home with the 40-foot atrium and the court in the living room, where he shoots baskets with his 9-year-old son, Brett, and his pool in the shape of a boxing glove, a tribute to his father's career.

When he presented Mr. Benjamin with a citizenship citation last week, Mayor Schmoke said, "It is our hope that other citizens will follow his outstanding example. Mr. Benjamin knows the meaning of giving something back to the community. We need the creative input of citizens like Mr. Benjamin who are willing to reach out and help our youngsters in a very real way."

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