An unassuming man whose eyes twinkled with affection and purpose, Harold Alfond lived a full and rich life devoted to his family, his business and the people of Maine. Alfond's love for work and charitable causes continued into his 90s when he often reminded friends and family that he had much work to do and would not "retire until at least 10 years after I'm dead."
In keeping with that reminder, Alfond committed nearly all of his wealth to the Harold Alfond Foundation, which will continue to fund charitable causes in the state of Maine for generations to come. Harold Alfond was born in Swampscott, Mass., in 1914, and came of age during the lean years of the Great Depression. Alfond was an outstanding high school athlete and credited much of his success in life to the lessons learned from sports during his youth.
Sports also nurtured Alfond's competitive spirit and taught him how to get along with people, traits that defined his success in business and philanthropy. Though he was the recipient of honorary degrees from five colleges and universities, Alfond never attended college. After graduating from high school, Alfond followed his father into the shoe manufacturing business at Kesslen Shoe Co., Kennebunk. In only two years at Kesslen Shoe Co., Alfond rose from the position of "odd shoe boy" making 25 cents an hour to plant superintendent by the age of 22. At Kesslen, Alfond supervised the manufacture of Goodyear Welt shoes - heavy leather shoes named for their design and durable construction. Alfond liked to say, "If you know how to make Goodyear Welts, you can make anything."
In 1939, while en route to the Skowhegan Fair, Alfond picked up a hitchhiker who told him about a shoe factory for sale in nearby Norridgewock. He never arrived at the fair, but instead toured the abandoned factory. A year later, using proceeds from the sale of his car, Alfond and his father bought the plant for $1,000 and launched Norrwock Shoe Co. Drawing on their expertise in making Goodyear Welts, the father and son team made midpriced leather shoes, all casual and sturdy, as well as footwear for the armed forces. The midprice range was "where the volume is," according to Alfond.
After only four years, Norrwock Shoe had more than $4 million in sales. Sensing the market was ripe for a sale and to provide for his father's retirement, Alfond sold the company in 1944 to Shoe Corporation of America for $1.1 million. Valuing Alfond's energy and talent as an executive, the new owner retained him as company president, a position Alfond held until 1969. In 1956, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and former Maine Gov. and U.S. Sen. Owen Brewster sought out Alfond to help create jobs in Brewster's hometown of Dexter.
In 1958, Alfond purchased a vacant woolen mill in Dexter for $10,000 and Dexter Shoe Co. was born. In 1959, Alfond's nephew Peter Lunder joined Alfond at Dexter and together with Alfond's three sons, who later joined the business, built a shoe company that, at its peak, manufactured more than 36,000 pairs of shoes daily and more than 7.5 million annually. Initially, Dexter produced a traditional line of casual shoes for the "make-up" market: Sears, J.C. Penney, Edison, Montgomery Ward.
Within four years, Dexter began producing its signature products: casual rubber-soled leather boat shoes and field boots that carried the Dexter name. The Dexter line further expanded to include golf, bowling and other athletic footwear. Foreign competition rendered domestic manufacture of footwear a highly competitive business. But under Alfond's leadership, Dexter Shoe thrived by offering a high-quality American-made shoe at a reasonable price. Alfond assured Dexter's success by avoiding debt and investing all company profits in state-of-the-art manufacturing technology.
In its prime, the company could ship orders as small as one pair of shoes within 24 hours to retailers, effectively carrying the inventory for small, independent shoe stores. Technology investments and no debt also allowed the company to compete against foreign competitors while still paying Dexter employees a 15 percent premium over domestic industry standards. In 1971, Dexter became one of the first companies in the country to manufacture and retail its own product when Alfond pioneered the factory outlet store at his Skowhegan plant. Initially, the Dexter outlets sold factory seconds and outdated lines, but the familiar Dexter log cabin-style outlets soon carried top-quality shoes well below standard market price.
By the 1990s, Dexter had expanded to more than 80 outlet stores nationwide, employed nearly 4,000 people and had annual sales exceeding $250 million. Over the years, Alfond turned down many offers to purchase his family-run company. He and his nephew would tell suitors, "Your arms are too short and your pockets are not deep enough." Then in 1993, at age 79, Alfond sold Dexter Shoe Co., for Berkshire Hathaway stock to Warren Buffett.
In Berkshire's 1993 Annual Report, Buffett described Dexter as one of the best-run companies he had ever seen, which is why he was willing to purchase Dexter for stock, a transaction that left Alfond and his family as the second-largest shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. Alfond and his nephew were, according to Buffett, ".400 hitters." Buffett asked Alfond, his nephew and three sons to remain at Dexter, and Alfond stayed on until 2001 when Dexter was merged into HH Brown Shoe Co. Harold Alfond was married Aug. 5, 1943, to Dorothy "Bibby" Levine, daughter of a prominent Waterville family. Making their home in Waterville and summering on Belgrade Lakes, the couple had four children, Ted, Susan, Bill and Peter. In 1950, at the age of 36, Alfond and his wife established the first private foundation in Maine.
The Alfonds shared with others less fortunate through support of local causes and organizations. They focused on health care and education with a special emphasis on helping young people. The Alfonds' giving pattern was established early on with gifts to such organizations as the Waterville YMCA, Waterville Boys and Girls Club, the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers, Thayer Hospital and Colby College. Alfond also personally and quietly paid school tuitions for many of the children of his employees and friends.
After the sale of Dexter Shoe, with his wife, Bibby, as his partner and counsel, Alfond greatly accelerated the charitable donations of his foundation. The donations made by the Harold Alfond Foundation generally reflected Alfond's belief in teamwork and his love of competition. Gifts typically took the form of matching challenge grants, which inspired and leveraged additional giving by others. Alfond understood the value of a community knowing that each individual contribution would be doubled, whether it was $5 or $50,000. He was also renowned for his quick challenges; often at a building dedication he would offer to match all funds raised during the event or over the next 30 days. Reflecting his belief in the value of youth sports programs and using the challenge match approach, Alfond contributed millions of dollars to charitable causes, especially for facilities at schools and colleges throughout the state of Maine and in several other states. As a condition of his contributions, Alfond often required that the facilities were to be shared with the community at large, as well as with students, faculty and staff. Buildings which bear the Alfond name include the ice arena, athletic center and senior residential complex at Colby College; the sports stadium, hockey arena, arena clubhouse at the University of Maine; the student recreation center and academic building at St. Joseph's College; the recreation center, middle school, visitors' center and family cottages at Good Will-Hinckley School; the baseball diamond at Husson College; the athletic center at Thomas College; the campus of the Maine Children's Home for Little Wanderers; the student center and artificial athletic turf field at Maine Maritime Academy; the athletic center at Kents Hill School; the ice arena at Eaglebrook School; the sports center, swimming pool, baseball stadium and boathouse at Rollins College; the center for health sciences at the University of New England; the management center at the Eugene Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts; the center for cancer care of MaineGeneral Hospital; the youth recreation center and municipal pool in Waterville and the Alfond Lodge at Camp Susan Curtis.
Additional major grants were given to Boston College for the varsity football training facility, the Kennebec Valley YMCA, the Maine Holocaust Human Rights Center and Holocaust Resource Center, the Belgrade Community Center, Mid-Maine United Way, the Ted Williams Museum and the Two Ten International Foundation which supports displaced shoe industry employees. Alfond and his foundation also funded numerous student scholarship programs at the University of Maine, Colby College, St. Joseph's College, Husson College and others.
The Foundation's grants for capital projects to educational institutions often included a requirement for scholarships, with preference given to students whose families had worked in the shoe industry or were from the greater Dexter area. More than 600 students have received Alfond scholarships since 1950. Alfond's philanthropy resulted in models of collaboration, teamwork and community involvement gaining national recognition. One of his favorites was also one of his most challenging. In 1996, Alfond received three separate capital funding requests for construction of youth recreation facilities in Waterville from the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club and the Waterville Parks and Recreation Department. Knowing there was a lack of area resources to support all three projects, Alfond assembled community leaders and issued a challenge. He would fund the biggest and best youth recreation center in the country by tripling all contributions if the three entities cooperated.
This challenge served as the catalyst to unite the community and resulted in the construction of the only combined YMCA and Boys & Girls Club in the nation, bordering a new outdoor municipal pool. In 1999, General Colin Powell, who was then chairman of America's Promise - The Alliance For Youth, visited the center and called it "the best youth center in the country."
The Alfond Youth Center, a 72,000 square foot facility, now serves more than 8,000 children and hundreds of families. In his later years, Alfond would often show up unannounced at the center to sit and enjoy watching busloads of children arriving for their after-school snack, followed by an afternoon of activities.
In recognition of his generosity and community involvement, Harold Alfond was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees over the course of his lifetime. Among these were the Ted Williams Distinguished American Award, the national Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award from United Way of America, the Mitchell Institute Millennium Award, the Marie Lombardi Humanitarian Award, Two-Ten Foundation's T. Kenyon Holly Award and the National Football Foundation & Hall of Fame's Gold Medal Award, an award also given to six United States presidents. Honorary doctoral degrees were conferred on Alfond by Colby College, the University of Maine, Thomas College and St. Joseph's College, all located in Maine; and Rollins College in Florida.
Alfond was inducted into the Maine Sports Legends Hall of Fame, Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, University of Maine Orono Hall of Fame and St. Joseph's College Hall of Fame. In addition to the shoe business and philanthropy, Alfond's initiatives took other paths with numerous investments in business, real estate and sports sponsorships.
Given his passion for sports and at the invitation of Jean Yawkey, the Alfond family became an owner of the Boston Red Sox in 1978. This holding of the Red Sox was prized by Alfond and remains a business holding of the Alfond family to this day. In 1996, Alfond founded Dexter Enterprises, Inc. to manage his family's philanthropy, investment, legal and business interests. He was fond of saying that Dexter Enterprises was "one of the best things I've ever done".
And in 1997, Alfond led the construction and opening of the 18-hole Belgrade Lakes Golf Club which, in 2002, Golf Digest recognized as among the top 12 public courses in North America, giving it a 5-star rating. At the time of his death, Alfond was focused on two of his largest projects ever - MaineGeneral Hospital's Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta and a model initiative to enhance college opportunities for children in Maine. The Cancer Center project grew out of Alfond's personal battle with cancer and his belief in bringing communities together. As a cancer survivor, Alfond knew well the devastating way in which cancer touched the lives of so many people and how important quality of care and environment is to fight the disease.
With this in mind, and with his penchant for uniting communities, he led the fundraising with an $8 million commitment for construction and endowment of the newly-opened Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, North Augusta, a facility which has drawn together the oncology medical and nursing staffs from the Waterville and Augusta areas.
Three favorite phrases of Alfond were, "Don't tell me, show me," "Keep it simple" and "If you keep chopping wood, pretty soon there will be a pile."
In many ways, these sayings capture the special qualities that defined Harold Alfond. He was a soft-spoken man with a common touch who inspired people to action and could usually put the essence of a situation into a single word or sentence.
Alfond will be remembered as a devoted husband and father, a compassionate citizen, an inspiring businessman, and a kind and loyal friend. He was predeceased by his parents, Simon and Rose Alfond; his sisters, Bertha Miller, Grace Wolper and Anne Leland; and his much loved wife, Dorothy "Bibby" Alfond, who passed away Dec. 31, 2005.
He is survived by his brother, David and wife, Delores; his sister, Gladys Nathanson; his son, Ted and wife, Barbara; his daughter, Susan; his son, Bill and wife, Joan; his son, Peter; his nephew, Peter Lunder and wife, Paula; 13 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, many nieces and nephews; and longtime dear friend, Alice Emery.
A public service celebrating the life of Harold Alfond will be held in the spring on a date to be announced.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in memory of Harold Alfond to the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care at MaineGeneral, 157 Capitol St., Augusta, ME 04330; Good Will-Hinckley School and Home for Boys and Girls, P.O. Box 159, Hinckley, ME 04944; or the Alfond Youth Center, 126 North St., Waterville, ME 04901.
Arrangements are under the direction of Redington Funeral Home, Waterville.
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