2014-10-10 / Front Page

Story proves you can get there from here

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Marshall “Jack” Gibson, founder and longtime owner of Commercial Paving & Recycling Co., poses in his South Portland office with a copy of his recentlyreleased autobiography, “Getting Here from There.” (Duke Harrington photo) Marshall “Jack” Gibson, founder and longtime owner of Commercial Paving & Recycling Co., poses in his South Portland office with a copy of his recentlyreleased autobiography, “Getting Here from There.” (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Three years ago, Marshall Gibson, better known as Jack, was going through the archive room in his South Portland office when a thought occurred to him.

Between the time Gibson founded what would become Commercial Paving & Recycling Co. in 1945, and his sale of the firm in 2004, he had done work for 175 municipalities across the state of Maine, from tip to tail. There in his archive sat a leviathan-like collection of letters, contracts and photos documenting 59 years of vital infrastructure work dating back to his teenage years. What would happen if he died that day, he wondered. Who could hope to make sense of his papers?

“I realized I had better put some of this in written form so my two boys, after I am gone, wouldn’t be wondering who these folks are in some of the photos, or what airport runway was it their dad paved,” he explained in a recent interview at his Wallace Avenue office.

And so, Gibson set out to put the pages of his life in order. After a couple of false starts with other co-authors, Gibson connected with local newspaper columnist Bill Nemitz and the result, now out from Topsham-based Just Write Books, is a 168-page autobiography entitled, “Getting Here from There.”

True to his nature as a dedicated philanthropist — over the past four years Gibson has given back with $10,000 gifts to the cities and towns that gave his company so much business over the years — all proceeds from the book will benefit the Marshall L. and Susan Gibson Pavilion inpatient cancer care unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

But Gibson’s tome is more than a dry tracing of where he laid down tar, and when. It is filled with anecdotes of hardwon business acumen, an indefatigable work ethic, deeply held loves —including a moving poem written four days after the death of his first wife — and, above all, humorous tales of a scrappy young businessman who steadfastly refused to accept defeat.

“There’s a lot of humor in my life,” said Gibson. “(Nemitz) and I went to it once a week for quite a while. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Bill’s a good writer and really hit the right note. It tells the story the way it should be told. No question.”

Gibson got his start as a 13-year-old boy shuttling crews back and forth across South Portland’s liberty ship boatyards during World War II. But that was never the intent. Gibson and a pal had taken summer jobs from Charlie Dwyer, who owned a piggery located near where the Maine Mall is today. The boys were to ride around to area restaurants collecting garbage to feed Dwyer’s pigs, and dutifully got up at 6 a.m. for their first day’s work. But on the way to the first stop Dwyer detoured to the shipyard, to check on other work crews he had there. As it turned out, one of Dwyer’s drivers had not shown up for work, so he turned to Gibson and asked the youngster if he knew how to drive a truck.

“I said sure,” recalled Gibson, with a laugh. “I had never driven a truck in my life. My father had taken me out in his 1929 Hupmobile, with one hand on the emergency brake while I drove though Deering Oaks. That was the only experience I had, but I figured they probably both worked the same. I was never one to say no.”

Gibson had some trouble finding the gears, particularly reverse, and ran into more trouble attempting to obey Dwyer’s command to fill his new ride with oil before taking off.

“I had never checked oil before,” Gibson said. “So I took off the fill cap, looked down and, not seeing any oil, figured it must need some.”

Can after can went into the engine from a nearby work shed until a passing truck driver saw the burgeoning pile of empty cans and stopped off to introduce Gibson to the concept of the dipstick. Of course, that was after he’d showed Gibson how to drain out all the excess oil he’d dumped into the motor.

As it was, Gibson never made the garbage run and spent the rest of that summer driving men around the shipyard. Indulgent co-workers showed him the ropes until, before long, he was, he said, “a full-fledged tractor-trailer driver” hauling steel plates at 75 cents an hour to build ships for the war effort.

Gibson acknowledges such a start would not be possible in today’s highly regulated world. Still, his shipyard experiences left the young man burgeoning with enough confidence that, by the time he was 16, he’d dropped out of high school to found his own trucking company.

It was a bold move, considering Gibson did not even own a truck at the time. But the young entrepreneur had seen a dump truck sitting beside a gas station on Forest Avenue and soon had the owner convinced to lease it out.

“Here I was, just a kid and making these deals,” he recalls. “I can’t believe people trusted me.”

Before long, Gibson had made enough to buy his own truck, hauling at $4 an hour, although it was a bit longer before he was able to put a telephone number on the door. Things built slowly and word of mouth was how he got work in those days.

One of Gibson’s first paving jobs was carrying hot top when I-95 came through Portland. He pulled up to the staging area and, from his cab, held up six fingers to indicate his vehicle could handle six tons. But in his eagerness, Gibson had forgotten the signal was one finger for every two tons. What he got was 12 tons and a broken axle. Worse, because he could not dump his load right away, it solidified inside the dump body. Gibson had to borrow a jackhammer to chisel the hardened mass out of his vehicle.

Still, Gibson persevered. His pursuit of perfection and attention to detail enabled him to develop proprietary products and techniques that allowed him to offer better and faster service while he nibbled away at the market share of existing companies from the edges of their coverage areas. He built relationships, getting to know selectmen and road commissioners across the state on a first-name basis, sealing multi-million dollar deals on a handshake.

After serving as an engineer during the Korean War, Gibson returned home and continued to grow his company by the sweat of his brow. Starting in southern Maine in the spring, he’d follow projects north to Fort Kent as the weather grew progressively warmer, then continuing to bid for work southward again, finishing up where he’d started in the fall. Through it all, Gibson remained hands-on, personally supervising his 15-man work crews. Only once, in the 1960s, did he try to develop a second unit, but when it proved lax without his watchful eye, having knocked off early to enjoy some adult refreshments, he let the entire group go. Better to leave jobs on the table than to sully his company’s hardwon reputation, he thought.

“I was always turning away work. I just didn’t have time to do it all,” he said. “But I was always running a machine, making sure the work was up to my standard, and everybody got to know that after a while. I never disappointed anybody.”

By the time he sold the company he’d built, Gibson had grown wealthy — enough so that since 2006 he’s made monthly $10,000 donations to the cities and towns that employed him over the decades.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he explained of the ongoing gifts. “So many people helped me along the way. I know some guys looked at me when I first started and wondered what I could possibly know about roadwork, but they all gave me a chance.”

Previously, Gibson donated $2 million in memory of his first wife, who died from cancer in 1989, creating the Marshall L. and Susan Gibson Pavilion, a state-of-theart hematology/oncology ward at Maine Medical Center.

Every week since then, Gibson has returned to the Pavilion to visit staff and patients, distributing packages of the Granny Kirkwood brand shortbread that he bakes himself, using an old Scottish recipe that goes back five generations along his late wife’s line.

But giving back to the communities that made him a success has not stopped there. In addition to the municipal donations made from a foundation created with his second wife, Ruth-Anne, Gibson has given to support the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, the Liberty Ship Memorial at Bug Light Park in South Portland, Hospice of Southern Maine, Center Day Camp in Windham and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, among many other worthy recipients.

His autobiography, Gibson said, is a record of his amazing journey, from teenage entrepreneurial go-getter to gracious octogenarian philanthropist.

“Anybody that has started their own business may be able to identify some of the trials and tribulations I had,” he said. “I am not making any money on it. That was not the intent. All of the money will go to the hospital.

“I don’t have any airs about myself,” Gibson said. “I simply enjoy working with people and helping people. I’ve done that all my life.”

Get your copy

To order a copy of Marshall Gibson’s autobiography, “Getting Here from There,” contact Gibson at 409-9072, or visit the office of Gibson Real Estate at 1 Wallace Avenue in South Portland. The book also is available on Amazon. All proceeds from each $24.95 sale (plus $2.60 for shipping) will go to benefit the Gibson Pavilion cancer care unit at Maine Medical Center.

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