"I'm always wheeling and dealing. I'm still making a lot of deals," said philanthropist Tony Pomerleau. And he's been wheeling and dealing for nearly nine decades. Pomerleau grew up poor in the Northeast Kingdom. He wasn't the best student, but he became a brilliant businessman. "I was not that smart in school. I was probably the dumbest one in class. But they all ended up working for me sooner or later," he said.
His success started early. At 12 he charged his classmates a quarter to cut their hair, began washing cars a short time later, and got into retail in his early teens -- setting up sales displays in store windows. In his early 20s he got a small loan to buy some Burlington grocery markets and changed the way people shop for goods forever. Instead of clerks fetching items behind the counters for customers, he created aisles for browsing. It worked. "I never went too fast too soon too quick," he recalled.
He eventually turned that small investment into a multi-million dollar real estate empire in Vermont, running the company from his corner office in Burlington's old Follett Building -- what he calls 'Pomerleau Palace' -- overlooking Lake Champlain. "I have everything I want -- house and everything else, cars and boats and hotels," Pomerleau said. "I am a very fortunate man."
Tony Pomerleau is not shy about his success and the fortune he's amassed. He's also not shy about spreading his wealth to those who need it most. "I don't want to take it with me, so I am giving it away," he said. He's given millions away through his foundations -- to Saint Michael's College, to the YMCA, to churches, the hospital in Newport, to needy Vermonters down on their luck.
Pomerleau throws annual Christmas parties for Vermont military members and low-income families. "Half the people coming in with their kids were there with their parents too you know," he said.
His name graces facilities across the area, including the Burlington Police Department -- a building he donated. And after one of the largest natural disasters to hit Vermont, Pomerleau forked out another million to mobile home owners impacted by Tropical Storm Irene. "If I was in that case, I'd appreciate it," he said.
"We have the Pomerleaus, the McClures, the Tarrants. We have the Orton family," said Peter Espenshade with the Vermont Community Foundation. The Foundation works with some of the state's wealthiest residents -- the first families of giving in Vermont. The Foundation oversees more than 600 charitable funds. "For us to be working with these legends of philanthropy -- sort of the Carnegies or Rockefellers of Vermont -- is a real honor," Espenshade said.
The Vermont Community Foundation says people give for many reasons, but tax benefits aren't typically the main ones. "Tax benefit is never at the top of the list, it is down on the list, but it is always about joy, wanting to make a difference and caring about neighbors and friends," said the Foundation's CEO, Stuart Comstock-Gay.
Tony Pomerleau says his generosity stems from the kindness he experienced as a young man -- in a state that gave him so much. "So, I just pass it on," he said. And even after his large donations, he says, his large family should be set for life. "They got most of it. They got plenty. They've got a lot more than I give away," he said.
And so he expects the Pomerleau's tradition of giving to continue for generations to come.
Tony Pomerleau is the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year. He will be honored at a ceremony later this month.
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