“My mother-in-law was concerned that I would be lost when I retired,” says Charlie North, who bid adieu to his longtime job as president and CEO of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce late last year. “‘You’ve been so busy,’ she used to say. ‘What will you do?’ ” Of course, many in Dutchess County had wondered the same thing. After all, it was hard to imagine uber-energetic North hanging around on the golf course.
For more than two decades, he had sprinted from one corner of the county to the other — attending ribbon-cuttings, speaking at events, shaking hands, co-hosting a weekly radio show, and, most important, building the Chamber into a powerhouse organization that is widely recognized as a new model of what chambers of commerce can and should be. “Not bad for a Jewish kid coming up from Port Chester,” says North, noting that while he doesn’t have a college degree, he did have “wonderful” parents who instilled a fierce work ethic in him. These days, he and his wife, Joanne, spend much of the year at their condo in Palm Beach, where he gardens, does a little consulting, and visits with family — “It’s like I’m running a B&B, but I don’t get paid for it.”
But does the guy who readily admits that “I’ve always had that show business flair in me” miss the limelight? “I was in Adam’s the other day,” says North, who returns to the Hudson Valley for the summer, “and a couple of people came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for everything you did for Dutchess County.’ That’s very nice. I was a big fish in a small pond, and I was very fortunate to have that job. But now nothing pleases me more than sitting out on the screened-in porch and listening to music and drinking a nice glass of wine. I find that it’s okay not to be out and be on all the time. Not that I didn’t enjoy it when I did it, but it’s really okay.”
Your silky voice is legendary. Did you take voice lessons?
No. No lessons. My voice is a gift. I did do radio for two years; it was a lot of fun, but no money. But when I was 13, I took the money I got from my bar mitzvah and went to acting school down in New York City. My acting coach was Telly Savalas.
Tell us about your childhood.
Both of my parents were deaf, and a lot of people used to make fun of them. So, I got into a lot of fights — talk about bullying — but we lived through it. Port Chester was a wonderful community and very diverse.
What was your first job?
I had a paper route when I was nine. But when I was a kid, I worked in the corner store down the block. In those days, in the ’50s, the corner store was today’s Facebook page — everything happened there. These two people, Uckley and Shapovick, took me under their wing and taught me everything. They taught me about community, about dealing with customers, about how to run a business. It was quite an education.
How did you make your way up to Dutchess County?
When I graduated high school, I was lucky enough to get a job as a teller in a bank, and, ultimately, I worked my way up. I got transferred up here to run a branch.
You joined the Chamber in 1992, left four years later — and then came back again in 2000. Why?
I had missed the public life terribly. When I came back, the Chamber was in terrible shape financially, but I assembled a team of people who knew that this is not a job — it’s a lifestyle. With the help of a great team, we’ve been very successful in bringing the Chamber to where it is today. It’s a great organization.
Tell us about some of the programs.
We have a large workforce-development area. We have mentors who work with people who have been on social assistance. We get them jobs, we help them get clothes and put together a resume; it is one of the most successful programs in the state. We have the federally-funded Youth One Stop program that helps young people get jobs and become leaders. We just formed a partnership with our friends at Poughkeepsie High School; it’s the first program in the country where a local chamber of commerce is working with a local high school to get these students thinking about work. It’s been very successful, and I anticipate other schools jumping on-board, too. Then we formed a foundation a few years back; last year, we gave away $65,000 in scholarships. It goes on and on.
Are you happy to be back in the Hudson Valley for the summer?
Yes! This is my home; I love Dutchess County. My mother comes to live with us for the summer, too; she just turned 96!
And your golf game?
Well, I do have a nice set of clubs. That’s all I’m going to say.