First jobs

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George and Les, paperboys? NASCAR Ricky, shelver extraordinaire? Tim Sample, a dock sweeper? We asked some well-known Mainers and area luminaries how they made their first paychecks. Such lofty heights. Such humble beginnings…

Angus King dug post holes.

Les Otten delivered newspapers and perfected the art of collecting the big tip.

Chip Morrison took elevation readings from the bottom of a sewer.

Jim Bennett washed dishes at Howard Johnson’s.

Bob Marley cooked Texas toast at Bonanza Steakhouse after very brief stints at the register microphone (he got booted for telling jokes) and the fry-o-lator (he tried to collect the evening’s hot grease in a plastic bucket. Bad idea.).

Good entry-level times, all.

From the farm and the fry-o-lator to the State House and Hollywood, that first job can clearly lead anywhere.

As teens gear up for summer and initial forays into the workforce, the Sun Journal asked 20 Maine people in all sorts of occupations – NASCAR driver, politician, police chief, humorist – to share their first job experiences and how, if at all, it helped get them where they are today.

Many times, in unexpected ways – think waiter-turned-governor – it did.

And young people, take heart: According to the U.S. Census, at last count, the average person held 10.2 jobs between ages 18 and 38. Educational level didn’t matter much in the equation.

So you won’t wallow in the sewers forever. Unless you enjoy that sort of thing.

Starting young: delivering papers before they made headlines

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Success, you are a paperboy.

It turns out loads of people got their start pitching newsprint.

Growing up in Waterville, former U.S. Senator-turned-peacemaker-turned-baseball-steroid-investigator George Mitchell delivered two newspaper routes, morning and night. Then the 9-year-old washed cars at a used car lot in his free time.

He’s kept up the frantic pace.

“That man could run circles around anyone, including me,” said Bonnie Titcomb Lewis, The Mitchell Institute’s director of advancement. “His schedule is absolutely marathonish. It’s bizarre, he never slows down.”

What Mitchell learned, as relayed to Titcomb Lewis: “Whatever job you do, no matter how small it is, you must do it well.”

Les Otten, who built a small ski resort into a multi-million-dollar company, learned early that time, er, timing, is money.

He delivered the afternoon Bergen Record in northern New Jersey as a kid.

The newspaper cost customers 33-cents a week. He honed his collection skills; billing every two weeks almost certainly got you $1 and a sweet tip.

Leaving an envelope for people to pay? No good. Saturday mornings? Ditto.

Best to collect after work when they were just happy to be home: “You got a bigger tip,” Otten said.

And where, possibly, did the co-owner of the Boston Red Sox foster his love of baseball? “Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard lived in our town. We used to try to hang out with the guy who had them on his paper route,” Otten said.

Snowboardcross pro Seth Wescott used money from his Farmington paper route to buy his first pair of soft snowboarding boots, secondhand, for $60, according to his mom.

The rest is history.

Wescott took Maine’s first winter gold medal at the Olympics a couple months ago.

And then there’s Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College, who delivered the Green Bay Press-Gazette at age 11, after school … when he remembered.

“I think I was probably a supervisory challenge. I was a bit of a smart aleck,” he said.

Knapp’s first boss told it like it was. What Knapp took away from the experience: Never go toe-to-toe with a newspaperman.

Ode to the restaurant, or, do you want fries with that?

John Baldacci was a teenage pasta slinger.

The man who would be governor also cleaned floors, washed dishes and waited tables at Mama Baldacci’s, the family restaurant in Bangor, growing up.

“He served a lot of people a lot of plates of spaghetti and continues to serve people today, in a different way,” said spokeswoman Crystal Canney.

Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett washed dishes at the old Howard Johnsons at mile 81 on the Maine Turnpike. He didn’t stay too long before nabbing a better job with the golden arches.

“What a lot of people fail to realize is I’m from the area. They think I’m from who-knows-where. My management career started at the Lewiston McDonald’s,” he said.

Bob Marley did not get put on the management track at Bonanza.

The standup comic started at the Portland take-a-tray-claim-your-meal steakhouse at age 14, first as a dishwasher, then onto register jockey, fry cook and grillman.

“They said, ‘This guy is pretty much a moron, let’s move this guy to Texas toast,'” Marley said. He had to butter, grill, flip, grill more, cut the bread in half and hand it off.

He uses the experience and bad polyester outfits in his act.

“I had a manager, his name was Scott. His work ethic was impeccable – he could be in jail now for all I know – and I learned you take pride in what you do. He came up to me one day while I was washing dishes and said, ‘You know how you earn $3.20 an hour? Not anymore: $3.25.’ I was so excited, I went home and told my dad,” Marley said. “I don’t care how much money I ever have, my kids are both working (when they’re old enough). You can only learn things by those experiences.”

A teller of tales, a crasher of cars

Some first jobs clearly don’t reflect at all what folks do today.

Leon Levesque, Lewiston school superintendent, started out in the back of a dolly pushing buttons to his supervisors’ commands – right skip, left skip, double-line – painting roads.

“I trucked all over the state, from Augusta north to the Allagash,” he said.

Lewiston Police Chief William Welch baled hay and milked cows at a Clinton farm for 75-cents an hour. For an extra quarter, he’d unload hay into the blistering 150°F barn: “Once it got to a certain point, you had to throw the bales overhead, they’d inevitably topple back down, hit you in the head, you’d have hay sticking to you…”

In a word, awful.

“I understood what work ethic was,” Welch said. And that in no way did he want to farm.

Then some jobs were clearly fate.

Tim Sample worked in his dad’s shipyard in Boothbay Harbor. All seven young kids had to punch in with the men in the morning and see the foreman for a daily assignment. Typically: wash decks, sweep docks, gofer.

The Maine humorist spent long mornings listening to fishermen and lobstermen’s tales. “I just became mesmerized by these incredible characters with fabulous dialects who just told stories,” he said. Those yarns, salty accents and unflappable attitudes color his humor now.

When he was 15, Ricky Craven got a job at Hampden Auto Parts. His dad knew the owners; he thinks they were doing a favor. He was hired to stock shelves – fun, but he coveted another job: driving the little four-cylinder truck to make deliveries and pick up parts.

So he asked if he could do that instead. “They, being wise and having more experience, they thought I was perfect for stocking shelves,” Craven said, laughing.

Then that driver couldn’t work one Saturday. Craven got his chance.

“I delivered those parts to two or three of their customers in world-record speed. There’s no question I did a good job,” he said. The gig was his.

Craven went on to NASCAR stardom. Perhaps some of the occasional, nasty spills he suffers for the sake of speed today could have been foreseen.

On that first job, “I hit something one day, I can’t remember the circumstances. I felt awful. They said, ‘Look, maybe you ought to deliver fewer parts each time.'”

Of course, that would have meant slowing down.

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