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.