Arthur G. Gaston hauls his 102-year-old body out of bed five times a week to make it to work by 10 a.m. Once there, he carries out one of the last duties of his long and incredible life, that of chairman of the board of Citizens Federal Savings Bank in Birmingham, Ala.
In 1957, Mr. Gaston organized Citizens, the first African-American-owned thrift in the state, and served as its president, relinquishing that post just four years ago.
His story is one about a black man who fought against staggering odds to successfully build several businesses. He's a living legend in Birmingham's black community, and the $83 million-asset Citizens is the primary reason.
"What I have done anybody can do," the heavy-set banker, a youthful glint in his eye, said modestly.
When Alabama's banking department rejected his application to start the thrift, he reapplied with federal regulators.
And when they accepted the application, but gave him two weeks to raise funds, he quickly came up with $250,000 from Birmingham's black community to start the thrift.
"He is a man who created opportunity for himself," said Robert Dickerson, a former senior lending officer with Citizens, but now a management consultant.
"At the time he was growing up there was no mentor for him. We could say he is a self-made man who turned things around for the people in the community."
In his quiet, disciplined way, Mr. Gaston has become one of Alabama's most influential black leaders. He's authored a book titled Green Power: The Successful Way of A.G. Gaston, first published in 1968.
He's won numerous civic awards for service to Birmingham's black community. There's even an elementary school and a boys and girls club that bears his name.
Mr. Gaston's investments in the community not only include insurance and banking, but also have helped start a motel, a restaurant, and a home for senior citizens.
He retired as president and chief executive officer of Citizens Federal when he was 98 years old, but as chairman he meets with the thrift's board of directors on a monthly basis to discuss general business and policy. He still has input in the decision making about credit policy and underwriting guidelines.
One task currently underway at the thrift is the construction of a new $2 million headquarters building. It's scheduled for completion on July 4, 1995, the date of Mr. Gaston's next birthday. A big celebration is being planned for the occasion.
Mr. Gaston's day begins with sorting mail, answering phone calls and helping iron out problems that arise. He acknowledges that after a century on the planet, life is taking its toll.
He recently lost a leg to diabetes, so he hired a chauffeur to drive him about town in his two-door Cadillac Coupe de Ville. He's also scaled back his work week to about 15 hours. "I remember a lot of things happening over the course of my life, but I'm a little vague on dates," he said. "I don't drive or move about like I use to, nor attend community functions," Mr. Gaston has been a tireless worker all of his life. The grandson of slaves, Mr. Gaston was born in a log cabin in 1892 during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, the country's 23rd president.
He grew up in the town of Demopolis, Ala., about 100 miles southwest of Birmingham with his mother, who was a cook. Mr. Gaston's father died early in his life.
As a boy he was fascinated by black businessmen. His inspiration was Sebron Edwards, the first black in the county to graduate from high school. Mr. Edwards clerked for a black store owner in Demopolis, and Mr. Gaston made trips to store to watch him work.
To Mr. Gaston, Mr. Edwards epitomized success. He was smart, and he had a good job.
He even credits Mr. Edwards with inspiring him to start his first business -- a swing that hung between two sturdy oak trees in his from yard. The fee charged was buttons that Mr. Gaston gave to his mother to sew onto shirts and jackets.
Mr. Gaston later moved to Birmingham with his mother, but he's unclear of the date.
In 1914, he joined the Army and served in World War I as a military policeman. He recalls that despite having law enforcement status in the Army he and other black policemen were forced to use facilities marked "colored" separated from their white counterparts.
After he was discharged from the Army in 1921, Mr. Gaston held odd jobs. For a time he drove a Wagon to pick up and deliver clothes for the O.K. Dry Cleaning Plant. He also worked in a mine, and later sold insurance to blacks in Birmingham.
In 1923, he opened his own insurance business, which sold burial policies to blacks.
The insurance business grew and prospered, but eventually he decided it was time for the community to have its own financial institution. He thought that blacks lacked any type of banking services.
He wanted to start a thrift to provide mortgage money for blacks because they could not borrow from white-owned institutions, or qualify for credit since most had inadequate jobs, he said.
But Mr. Gaston faced a huge number of challenges as he tried to start a financial institution in the deep South. He ran into his first brick wall when the banking department told him that there was no need for another bank and rejected the application.
He thinks the decision was racially motivated, but he would not elaborate. Mr. Gaston, in fact, clearly dislikes blaming roadblocks on race.
That didn't stop him from pushing forward for something he was convinced the community so desperately needed. He hired lawyer Arthur D. Shores to go to the nation's Capitol to get approval for the charter.
"They [the federal regulators] gave us two weeks to come with the money for the thrift's capitalization," Mr. Gaston said.
Mr. Gaston hustled about the community, making speeches at churches to convince blacks to invest in the thrift.
"I was able to convince the people that opening a bank was what our community needed," he said.
"My plan was to get people to learn how to save a dollar to five dollars a week toward helping them become property owners. But the people coming through our doors back then were mostly renters."
Citizens Federal Savings Bank was chartered by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in September 1956.
When the thrift opened it had $250,000 in assets, a far cry from its current $83 million. It employs 35 people and operates two branches as well as provides a full range of banking services.
As of Aug. 31, the thrift had a 1% return on assets and a 10% return on equity.
When Mr. Gaston retired, he appointed 50-year-old Bunny Stokes Jr., as president and chief executive. The two had worked together since 1968.
"He has been a good teacher and has helped me grow along with the bank as well as develop my management skills," said Mr. Stokes, who said Mr. Gaston puts the community first, and he continues to make sure its needs are met.
When Mr. Gaston isn't in the thrift he visits his 85-year-old wife Minnie in the nursing home. The two have been married for 50 years, and had no children. He lives in a colonial mansion on 12 acres of land near Birmingham.
Mr. Gaston says he'd like to continue to do more for Birmingham, but it's time to relax.
"I spend most of my leisure time now fishing and taking naps in the afternoon," said Mr. Gaston.