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APPRECIATION

Charles L. Terrell, 1941-2001

 

Business New Haven
2/19/2001
By: Michael C. Bingham
On February 8, the New Haven chapter of Habitat for Humanity held its annual Men's Bake Sale to benefit its “Women's Build” project for which female volunteers build or fix a blighted and abandoned house for a low-income family or families. This spring Habitat's Women's Build III will dedicate its third house to future homeowner Willa Mae Gray and her family of Newhallville.

It's a fun, well-attended event (the women build, the men bake - get it?) that draws “more than 100 of the area's most prominent” men from business, the media and government and reveals them as they really are: talented, creative and industrious types as competent in the kitchen as in the boardroom, or hopeless nincompoops still removing flour from their ears from the night before.

Like many others, former New Haven Savings Bank President Charles L. Terrell and I had both baked for the event every year since it began six years ago. But while I was (and am) one of the culinary charity cases, Charlie was always a high-flyer, concocting dazzling confection after dazzling confection (in the process making most of the rest of us look bad). Most of the tortes and cakes and things Charlie crafted year after year were things I had never heard of or tasted. But I sampled his baked goods every single year, and they were always just delicious.

Charlie Terrell would have celebrated his 60th birthday at this year's bake sale, making the occasion especially festive. But this year he was a no-show, because he died of brain cancer the day before.

Of course, no one really expected to see Charlie at this year's event. Word that he was gravely ill first made the rounds last August. It sent a chill through a community that had come to see Terrell as maybe the last still-active business leader whose tenure preceded the mayoralty of John Daniels. As the wise and benevolent steward of New Haven's last hometown bank - and one of the last remaining locally owned corporations with major downtown presence - Charlie Terrell was universally respected, and widely revered.

Charlie Terrell wasn't about to let something like a brain tumor stop him. After all, this was a man who was first stricken while on a 220-mile bicycle ride from the Terrells' Guilford home to their second home in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. A fellow who still played soccer far into his 50s, and was an annual participant each Labor Day in the 20-kilometer (that's 12.4 miles) New Haven Road Race - of which his bank was a stalwart principal sponsor.

Throughout much of the early autumn, Charlie kept coming to work at the bank as often as he could, trying to maintain a grip on as many of the bank's day-to-day functions as his attention and energy would allow. But by early October that attention and energy had ebbed to the point where he was forced to bow to the inevitable. He resigned effective November 1, although he hadn't been seen at the bank for several weeks before that.

Two weeks earlier, on October 17, some 600 members of the business community gathered at Veterans Memorial Coliseum to see Charlie Terrell accept the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce's highest honor, the Community Leadership Award. But a few days before the event, it began to be whispered that Charlie wasn't going to be able to make it to the breakfast, that he was just too sick.

He never made it. Instead, his son Matthew came and accepted the award in his father's stead. “For all the things he has done for New Haven, he's been an even better dad,” said Matthew Terrell, “the best someone could ever have.”

Charlie's absence then made it starkly evident to many of us that we were unlikely to see him again, not in this world.

Despite his high public profile - bank president, board member of organizations like the Hospital of Saint Raphael and Amistad Academy, Proprietor of the New Haven Green, treasurer of the New Haven Symphony and the Regional Leadership Council, founder and director of the New haven Enterprise Center, tireless booster of the little-known Institute Library - Charlie Terrell was an intensely private man.

Actually, I think “shy” is a better word. He never sought the limelight for himself; indeed, he seemed to avoid it like the plague.

Two years ago when Business New Haven named New Haven Savings its Corporate Citizen of the Year as part of its annual Business & Civic Awards, it was my job to say a few nice words about Charlie and the bank at the awards luncheon. I thought I actually saw him wince.

Charlie and his wife Martha raised four of their own children, but I guess that didn't lend enough excitement to their lives, because over the past quarter-century they also welcomed 20 foster children into their home. I don't think I ever heard of anyone else sharing so much so closely with so many.

I think maybe he did it because he just liked kids. He coached soccer for much of his adult life (as though he had extra time on his hands). He said he especially liked soccer because it was a team sport demanding a team approach - the soccer field is too big and there are too many players for one to pull his team to victory single-handedly.

Actually, I think there was a lot of kid in Charlie.

In addition to wife Martha and son Matthew, Charlie leaves behind son Mark, daughters Michelle Terrell of New Haven, Catherine Apgar of Guilford, Lisa Brockett of Florida and Tracie Novak of Bridgeport. Also brother Arthur of Alaska and sister Claire Meissner of Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Charlie Terrell deserved much more than a perfunctory “Banker Dies” article buried in the business section of the paper. He loved his hometown, loved his family, loved his work. He loved living.

I wish he still were.

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