Leon Gorman: A life lived well acting on his values

A portrait of Leon Gorman unveiled by L.L. Bean in May. Gorman died Sept. 3 at the age of 80. Courtesy L.L. Bean.

A portrait of Leon Gorman unveiled by L.L. Bean in May. Gorman died Sept. 3 at the age of 80. Courtesy L.L. Bean.

Leon Gorman was a man who climbed mountains — in business and in life.

His story most often begins with his success as a businessperson.

There, he was truly extraordinary, growing L.L. Bean from $4.75 million in sales when he took over the family company in 1967 to more $1.56 billion today and employing more than 5,000 people.

He chronicled the rise of L.L. Bean in his 2006 book, “L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon.”

But there’s a lot more to Leon Gorman’s story than business growth, return on investment and marketing.

There’s the story of a man who, by his own accord, had no real plan beyond finishing college, who grew to become the leader of one of the country’s most recognizable brands.

He was a man who climbed Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. He hiked and biked across the world testing products and raising awareness about important causes.

He put his values to work in the way he lived his life and ran his company, writing:

“Values are fine. But it’s what you do with them that counts, to borrow from Robert Frost.”

And he was a man who loved his family, his community and this state, and proved it with his actions.

Gorman died on Sept. 3. And on Sunday, at a memorial service attended by more than 500 people in Westbrook, a grateful and tearful state said goodbye.

In nearly every description, he’s called a quiet leader. Someone who listened, took measure of a situation and cut to the core of the issue at hand.

He was an adviser to governors and other civic leaders, a philanthropist, an environmentalist and a volunteer.

“As a business leader, he invested in Maine and grew L.L. Bean here,” said former Gov. John Baldacci after Gorman’s death. “But his impact and dedication to the state ran much deeper. He was a staunch advocate for the environment and for people struggling to overcome homelessness. He was a committed volunteer and philanthropist, cared passionately about education and gave generously of himself to many causes.”

He spent countless hours in service to others.

Every Wednesday morning for 12 years, Gorman volunteered in the kitchen at Preble Street, a homeless shelter in Portland, first as a dishwasher working his way up to food prep and finally earning a spot at the griddle where he made eggs and French toast for thousands of people over the years who were homeless.

He would get on the floor after the breakfast shift and clean the grease from behind the griddle, a job no volunteer had done before him.

Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, called Gorman, “A humble, self-effacing man whose deepest desire was to be of use to others, Leon was the real deal.”

In 2009, he was awarded the Volunteer of the Year Award from Preble Street. On Sunday, Swann announced that going forward, the award would carry Gorman’s name.

Gorman became heavily involved in education, serving on the Governor’s Community College Advisory Council, which was created in 2006. Along with his wife, Lisa, they helped to establish the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges. The foundation raises private dollars to support access to higher education in Maine.

On his 80th birthday earlier this year, Gorman’s children, Ainslie Boroff, Nancy Cohen, Shimon Cohen, Jeffrey Gorman, Jennifer Wilson, and their spouses and children established the Leon A. Gorman Endowed Scholarship.

Gorman believed that ensuring Maine people had access to a quality education was the “single most important investment we can make in the economic and social well-being of Maine citizens. An investment today will pay dividends for generations to come.”

Chris McCormick, president and CEO of L.L. Bean, talked about Gorman’s many contributions to his company and to Maine but summed it up like this: “Most importantly, he was the most decent human being you would ever want to meet. We will all miss him greatly.”

At a planning meeting for L.L. Bean in 1991, Gorman, according to his book, spoke of his goals for the company.

“I hope … people will say that in addition to renewing our competitive advantage, we had the courage to maintain our values and our integrity; that we have defined our business and not been defined by others; that we have fulfilled our responsibilities to all of our stakeholders, and that we continue to care enough to treat our customers, and each other, as human beings.”

Words to live by. Words that help us remember a life well-lived.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.