Earl Crawley is a man who believes hard work, like confession, is good for the soul.
On weekday mornings, he makes his way from his modest flagstone rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore, catches an MTA bus to Towson and heads to the Mercantile Bank and Trust branch, where he is the resident parking lot attendant.
Thirty-five years he's done this. The job began back when Lyndon B. Johnson was president, and it continues to this day.
"I retired back in December, but I'm still working 20 hours a week, part-time, you know," explains Crawley, a small-framed man of 63, with warm, crinkly eyes behind thick lenses, and a shy smile. "They wanted to give me a retirement party, but I said, 'Not yet, I'm still working.' "
His work - waving drivers onto the bank lot on Pennsylvania Avenue, directing the flow of cars as efficiently as any traffic officer, gently enforcing parking rules - requires equal parts skill and public relations. Easygoing and personable, the popular man whom some call the "mayor" of Towson or simply "Earl" greets regular banking customers by name and never hesitates to offer his arm to blue-haired ladies in need of assistance.
This is his way, this service with a smile approach, and over the years it has endeared Crawley to bank patrons and employees alike.
"Earl is a gentleman from the word go," says Mary F. Torpey, an assistant vice-president at Mercantile, who has known Crawley 15 years. "He works hard and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Everyone around here loves him."
"I treat people with respect," says Crawley, noting the respect he gets in return.
He's also gotten something else valuable in return: stock tips.
Over the years, those tips, coupled with his own hunches and self-honed market savvy, have enabled him to acquire unexpected wealth.
For sure, Crawley is no Donald Trump or Bill Gates.
But he has managed to accumulate an investment portfolio in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. He has burned a mortgage, put three kids and various relatives through Catholic schools and colleges, traveled the world with his wife and built a sizable nest egg.
He has received a major award from the U.S. Department of Labor, and there's even a book about him in the works.
Not too shabby for a humble parking lot attendant whose annual salary at the bank only recently hit $20,000.
The early years
Crawley started working 50 years ago at the stalls in Lexington Market when he was only 13. "My parents separated, so I helped my mother support us," recalls Crawley, who grew up in West Baltimore as the eldest son and middle child of five. "I worked 10, 11, maybe 12 hours a day."
For Crawley, work came easy, but school was tough.
A self-described "slow learner," he attended parochial school early on, then public schools, where he was placed in special-education classes.
He quit school around the eighth grade, later earning his diploma taking night courses at Frederick Douglass High School.
"I was never college material," Crawley says matter of factly. "But I have always had a strong work ethic. I have always been a hustler."
So he embarked on what would become a life-long string of odd jobs, cleaning for schoolteachers here, cutting lawns there.
All that might have been OK for a single man. But then Crawley married a young lady he'd met at a church function for Catholic singles.
"People used to call him the 'Duke of Earl,' after the song," remembers Beverly Crawley, his wife of 36 years. "My sisters used to tease me."
With a new wife, and the first of three babies on the way, Crawley needed a steady job, something stable. His mother, who did domestic work for a Mercantile employee, heard about a position at the bank.
"They called it a 'porta-job' back then," says Earl Crawley. "Now they've got a fancy word for it: They call it custodian."
The job paid about $70 a week, barely enough to take care of the bills and put food on the table for his growing young family.
"It was a struggle at times, we both shared the responsibilities," says Beverly Crawley, who mostly worked clerical jobs. "Earl worked hard; he kept taking odd jobs, odd hours, seven days a week. Sometimes we didn't see him much. But we made it."
Some sound advice
Crawley can vividly recall the conversation that led to his entry into the ticker-tape world of stocks and bonds.
He had been with the bank a few years, stocking supplies, handing out safe deposit box keys to customers, doing landscaping and just about anything else that needed to be taken care of.
One day, a well-meaning co-worker took Crawley aside and put a bug in his ear: " 'You have a limited education. You better get some money because you won't go far here,' " recalls Crawley.
That co-worker, since deceased, became a friend and mentor, spurring the youthful handyman to learn more about the stock market.
"Some people had shown me stock certificates, so I was aware of what they were," he says. "I didn't know enough to be scared. My co-worker suggested I come up with $400. With a family, I didn't know how I could do it."
But ever the hustler, he worked a little harder, scrimped, saved, prayed.
Eventually, all that effort paid off. One share of IBM stock got the ball rolling.
"It was a big sacrifice. My wife was mad; she thought I was throwing away our money," he says, chuckling at the memory. "But I was excited ... broke, but excited."
He wouldn't remain broke for long.
Crawley chatted up banking associates and business executives he met on the parking lot, asking them questions and getting hot tips. He picked the brains of brokers at Legg Mason (formerly located across the hall from the bank) and learned about CDs, IRAs and mutual funds. He slowly began buying small shares of local companies such as Martin-Marietta, BGE and, of course, Mercantile, then branched out to the "Blue Chip" stocks of Coca-Cola, AT&T; and Colgate-Palmolive.
"In the early years, I couldn't afford to lose money, so I had to go with quality stock," says Crawley. "I looked for stock that would pay a good dividend. I was conservative, and I took my time. That is the key to good investing."
John L. Flanigan III, a Mercantile customer and longtime Legg Mason financial advisor, has known Crawley some three decades. Through the years, he has given Crawley both formal and informal investment advice.
"I told him to put away a little into a mutual fund so that he got the proper diversification," Flanigan says. "The key is discipline. He had that - that is key in any program. In the long run, it will pay off.
"He is a wonderful human being, very devoted to his family, and extremely hard-working. He's been smart enough to keep his eyes and ears open, and listen to people who he thought had experience he could learn from," Flanigan continues. "Most young people today don't stop and listen to the experience others have gained from the school of hard knocks."
Humble by nature
Today, Crawley still prefers a steady, common sense approach to investing. He reads the stock pages but admits he has trouble deciphering the symbols. He shies away from trendy stocks, such as the recent high-tech boom. He has a broker but often follows his own "inner feelings."
"The man upstairs lays it on me," he explains.
Oh, and his IBM shares have grown from one to more than 260.
Crawley may be soft-spoken, but he's not afraid to share his strategies. He often calls the weekly "Moneyworks" program, a radio show on WEAA (88.9 FM) about investing, to offer advice to listeners. When Deborah Owens, a Columbia-based financial expert and the show's host, learned about his background, "it floored me," she says.
"Mr. Earl is my hero, he has so much wisdom," says the former vice-president with Fidelity Investments and author of the new book "Everywoman's Money: Confident Investing." Owens is such a fan that she plans to use Crawley's story in her next book as a model of sound investment principles.
"He validates everything I have espoused over the years about investing," she says of Crawley. "You don't need a lot of money; you don't need a lot of education. Investing is not for the rich, it's how you get rich."
Which is the point of the labor department's "Osceola McCarty Super Saver Award." In July, Crawley received the firstaward honoring the late Mississippi washerwoman who saved $280,000 while taking in laundry, then gave most of it away in a college scholarship fund. The award recognizes a low-wage worker who beat the odds and was able to save and invest for retirement.
With all the recent accolades, one might expect that Crawley has gotten a big head. But he remains the same low-key guy. No flashy wardrobe, no wad of money. He still catches the bus or an occasional Jimmy's taxicab.
His three adult children - Tanya, Tommy and Timmy - know not to ask for money, although they do receive stock certificates at Christmas and on birthdays.
"Earl's still thrifty. Extremely thrifty," says his wife. "He measures his money, and he measures his time."
Even the odd jobs continue. For years, Crawley has waxed floors and cleaned several Towson businesses.
"He does a great job for us. The guy has more stamina and energy than me and I'm 33," says Patrick Wolford, president of Wolford's European Bakery and Cafe on Chesapeake Avenue. "And if you need a stock tip, ask the man!"
Adds Mercantile's Mary Torpey, "Earl is constantly telling the young tellers here, 'You must save your money.'
"That, as much as his tenure here, has allowed him to buy stock. It's been a long process. Now he is finally in a position to enjoy it."
Indeed. While Crawley enjoys hobbies such as gardening (he tends the flowers at Mercantile and at home) and hand-carving furniture, his greatest indulgence has been the lavish vacations he's taken with his wife in recent years. Italy. The Caribbean. Canada. The couple celebrated their wedding anniversary last month with a trip to Disney World in Florida.
While he's beginning to see more of the world, it seems his worldview has remained much the same.
Thirty-five years, he's done this.
"I love my job. The people here at the bank are like family," he says. "And I love working. The harder it is, the more I like it.
"Work keeps you out of trouble."