Sam Shapiro was in Scottsdale, Arizona, earlier this month, attending the annual National Association of State Treasurers conference, when he was surprised with an award honoring him for lifetime achievement.

Beth Pearce, Vermont state treasurer and president of the association, presented Shapiro with the President’s Special Recognition Award in front of about 500 people. It was the first time the award had been bestowed on someone for working in or supporting public finance and for dedication to constituents when serving in the role of state treasurer and contributing to the association.

Shapiro, for those too young to remember, was Maine state treasurer from 1980 to 1997. He held the state’s checkbook, issued bonds and expanded the abandoned property program that gave millions back to people who were entitled to the money but otherwise would never have seen a cent of it. He also handled reimbursements to municipalities, increased the state’s credit rating on a regular basis and is proud, to this day, of the fact that 14 of his small staff of 16 women remained on the staff for all of his 16 years in office.

“I treated them the way I’d want to be treated,” he said.

Shapiro, 91, is a longtime Waterville and Winslow resident who, for the last 10 years, has wintered in Delray Beach, Florida. He has attended State Treasurers Association meetings for 37 years, so when he was recognized with the award and got a standing ovation to boot, he was touched. He recalled the brief speech he gave afterward about the country’s state treasurers.

“I said, ‘Eight treasurers became governors, eight treasurers became U.S. senators, three treasurers became members of Congress and 15 treasurers have gone to jail.’ They laughed for a long time.”

All humor aside, Shapiro regards his award as special, as his life’s work has been all about making other people’s lives better, though he isn’t one to brag.

Asked to comment on Shapiro’s award, Pearce, the association president, said in an email Tuesday that Shapiro “is what every public official should aspire to be. His dedication to his constituents and leadership within our organization have been second-to-none. His life is truly an inspiration, and there is no one more deserving of the NAST President’s Special Recognition Award.”

Success for Shapiro, who comes from humble beginnings, was decidedly hard-won.

He grew up in Cokesburg, Pennsylvania, where he remembers there were five streets — A Row, B Row, C Row, D Row and E Row.

“It was a coal mining town. We were poor during the Depression. My father broke bricks on the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the ’30s. They broke bricks for the base for highways. I was very proud of him. He joined the foreign army in the First World War. England had four regiments of all Jews under British officers. He fought in Palestine against the Turks. He never talked about it.”

Shapiro remembers that as a young child, he had only one pair of pants, but there was a lot of love in his small family, which included his sister and mother.

“I believe in giving,” he said. “You know why I do? One day when I was about 12 years old, my mother said to me in Yiddish, ‘Take this pot of oatmeal to the old gentile in the gray house next to the house on the corner.’ I said what do you mean? We barely have enough to eat ourselves.’ Sometimes, supper was only a half-cup of coffee with milk and a slice of bread and butter. She said, ‘Well, he’s sick, he’s old and he has no family.’ For two weeks I carried a pot of oatmeal to him. Later, he died.”

Shapiro would go on to graduate from Brownsville High School and the University of Pittsburgh where he played basketball and won outstanding athlete awards as well as a varsity letter of distinction. He earned a bachelor of science in education and later taught and coached basketball. He served in the U.S. Navy, spending time in Japan and China.

He landed a job as a counselor and athletic director at a boys camp in Casco, Maine, and met his future wife, Carol, also a camp counselor, at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Naples.

Carol, who passed away in 2013, was from Waterville. They married two years after they met on Thanksgiving. They raised their three children, Eric, Susan and Jeffrey, in Waterville, a city Shapiro grew to love and consider home. Carol was librarian at Waterville High School for 19 years, and was the first woman to serve on the Maine Liquor Commission.

He owned and operated State Furniture Co., with stores in Augusta and Waterville, and was treasurer of the Maine Democratic Party for 13 years before becoming state treasurer.

After he was term-limited out of that position, he went to work for Mitchell-Hutchins, a division of Paine Webber, a brokerage firm in New York which later was purchased by UBS, United Bank of Switzerland. He has for many years been a senior consultant for the Washington, D.C., law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC.

While in Waterville, he was president of the Waterville Common Council — the equivalent of the now-City Council — where he supported constructing the new high school, served on the building committee, advocated for busing children to parochial schools and served on the city’s Zoning Board.

Shapiro served on the Maine Liquor Commission, was one of the founders of Kennebec Mental Health, which was housed in the basement of then-Thayer Hospital on North Street, was military aide to Maine governors Kenneth Curtis and Joseph Brennan, chairman of Maine State Appeals Board, a member of Maine State Housing Authority board, Maine State Retirement System and Maine Municipal Bond Bank and has received many awards for various activities. In 1978 the Maine Democratic Party established the Sam Shapiro Award, given every two years to a Democrat at the state convention who epitomizes spirit and devotion to the state party.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Shapiro, even at 91, has never stopped working, never stopped giving. His charity to those less fortunate has been ongoing for many years, unspoken and under the radar.

He is smart, engaging and proud, yet humble. When I think of his generosity, I envision him working in his gigantic garden in the back yard of his Waterville home where for 40 years he has grown the most succulent, plump, red tomatoes imaginable and gives most of them away. For many summers, he sold tomatoes from his driveway, giving all the proceeds to the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta or the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville. It is an activity he loves.

“One year, I gave the hospital $1,400,” he said. “That was a lot of tomatoes. I had 450 plants that year.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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