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Millionaire Gives Away a Fortune


PORTLAND, Me. — As millionaires go, Thomas David Franklin is a rare bird, indeed.

He doesn't come from money: When he was born 32 years ago, his parents lived in a Baltimore housing project and the rest of his childhood was spent in working-class Dundalk.

He doesn't spend much money: He drives around Portland in a modest four-wheel-drive vehicle, owns only one piece of jewelry, lives in a walk-up apartment and answers his own phone with the gentle greeting, "Hi, this is David."

But the most unusual thing about this millionaire is that he doesn't have much money--at least not any more, since he quit his job selling computer systems to become a benefactor of Portland residents struggling to start their own businesses.

The 15 recipients of his interest-free loans include an armed robber-turned-painter, a clerk who wants to launch a mail-sorting business and a comic-book writer who was about to go under as he waited for his big break.

In the three weeks since Franklin took out a classified advertisement offering financial backing, he has written checks for $220,000.

His savings have dwindled to $87.26.

Aside from owning real estate in Baltimore and New England--assets that nudge him into the millionaire category--he's just about broke.

Aside from being too busy to leave his desk, he's nothing short of delighted.

"I guess I was brought up to do unto others, to help your fellow man," says the affable, enthusiastic man. "I've been doing it since I was a kid, when I collected 256 cans for a charity food drive."

He has been repeating that explanation of his charitable impulse at least once a day since the national media began descending on him last week. Pressed for something more specific, however, he pauses, taps his pencil against his teeth, emits a low whistle.

"I had a good friend in Baltimore who died of AIDS," he says, finally. "He was younger than I am. It made me do a little soul-searching. Suppose I get hit by a bus, suppose I go for a swim and I drown. It could all be gone. I might as well do as much as I can for other people now.

"That's why I made the bold change," continues Franklin, who quit his job with Convergent Dealership Systems, a subsidiary of the Maryland-based Unisys Corp., in April. "I thought, 'Why wait till you're 50?'

"I had a couple of months of play money left," he says, referring to about $200,000, some saved, some received in retirement benefits from the computer company, "and I decided to give it away."

Three of the beneficiaries pause at the open door of his office recently, interrupting an interview to talk about insurance, taxes, bank accounts and other business matters. The most pressing need of this trio, which calls its home-repair company Three Men "R" Handy, is finding a time when Franklin can help them clear out his basement, which will become their office.

"Tuesday's my only free day," Franklin says.

The tall, solidly built man with receding red hair stands in the doorway as he talks to the men in paint-specked clothes. One of the handymen, who has enjoyed watching the media stampede, corrects him: "Not Tuesday. You got a governor's appointment that day."

The conversation couldn't have sounded better if it had been rehearsed. But it was no more predictable than Franklin's path from a boyhood when money was tight to an adulthood when he is giving the stuff away.

The oldest of five children, Franklin tried to fill the gaps left by two working parents: His mother, Jean, still drives Baltimore County school buses and his father, Thomas, works as a maintenance engineer at the city morgue.

After dropping out of community college, Franklin borrowed a down payment from his grandmother and bought a house. He worked in the credit department of a clothing store, then quit and used his final paycheck to open a health-food business in Baltimore.

A year later, he sold Franklin's Fruits and Nuts at a profit and set his sights on the computer field. He slowly worked his way up to a sales job at Display Data (now owned by Unisys) and began at last to make the kind of money he had always craved, more than $100,000 a year.

Assigned to territory in New England three years ago, he moved first to New Haven, Conn., then to New Hampshire. He played the stock market a bit and kept buying buildings in Baltimore and New England.

"I wasn't a Donald Trump, but I've been successful," he says of the lucrative period that ended in April when he got bored again and quit his job.

His next move was to invest in a one-man computer company, based in Portland. As AAris Corp. prospered, Franklin decided to invest in other businesses that would earn him money in exchange for his funds and financial advice.

But when he sat down to write the classified ad that ran in the Portland Press-Herald last month, he specifically invited "street people" and welfare recipients to apply. And the calls started coming in, making a profit seemed less important.

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