December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

David Franklin has to be the most popular man in Maine. He’s so popular he’s now on his fourth telephone answering machine; the other three couldn’t handle the strain of the hundreds of calls received each day at his small office in downtown Portland. Indeed, the way people have been calling him, you’d think the man was giving away money.

And you’d be right.

Several weeks ago, Franklin—a 32-year-old former computer salesman in need of a fresh diversion—placed a tiny ad in the local papers. “Here’s your chance,” it said. “Local millionaire will put you in business. Street people and welfare applicants can apply.”

Franklin was thinking small. He thought he’d give away about $20,000, help maybe two or three people. Well, it didn’t work out that way. A month later some 3,000 people have answered his ad, and Franklin has gotten so caught up in the spirit of the venture, he has given away $125,000 to 15 applicants—leaving him, he says, with a mere $87 in his savings account. “After I started helping a few people,” he says, “I got a real warm, fuzzy feeling. I decided I ought to try to do it with all my money. I wanted to see what it was like to be down with the people I was helping—to see if I can start over again from scratch.” (Not that he’s actually destitute: He still owns about a million dollars’ worth of real estate.)

Among the recipients of his impulsive largess are a welfare mother who has started a housecleaning business, an ex-con with artistic ambitions, and a homeless man who plans to collect aluminum cans. In some cases it took only a few hundred dollars to get people started, but in others Franklin had to put up thousands. ‘They know this isn’t charity,” says Franklin, who expects them to pay him back when they’re able. “People don’t want a handout, just an opportunity. Besides, I’m a believer in the bubble-up theory, not the trickle-down.”

Reared in public housing and low-rent apartments in Baltimore, Franklin bubbled-up himself through sheer willpower. The oldest of five children—his father is a maintenance man at the Baltimore city morgue, and his mother has been driving school buses for 20 years—Franklin was both a do-gooder and go-getter. He was the kid who shoveled snow for the elderly lady across the street and who collected more canned food than anyone when a local charity started a drive. “I was an overachiever,” he says, “always venturing out to do my own thing.”

That included buying his first home at 18 with a $1,700 loan co-signed by his grandmother. After dropping out of community college, he worked briefly as a bill collector and credit manager before moving on to Display Data, where he hoped to learn the computer business. It took four years before he was allowed into the sales department, but once there he won every sales award in the company. By reinvesting his commissions, Franklin managed to buy six homes in Baltimore, three condos in New Hampshire and two commercial buildings in Portland.

Franklin’s latent gift for philanthropy emerged last spring, when he quit his sales job and invested $100,000 in a fledgling computer-software company, which brought him to Portland. After developing a new marketing strategy for the firm, he became restless once more. “Then this idea started,” he says, “and finally I thought, ‘Shoot, I’ll put the ad in the paper and use my talents to help other people establish their businesses.’ ”

Bonnie Robinson, 23, a single mother who had spent four years on welfare and had dreamed of starting a housecleaning business, was incredulous when she first saw the ad. “I thought maybe David was dying and wanted to give all his money away,” she says. “Now I think maybe he’s just a real generous man.” Robinson’s needs were simple—some sponges, chemicals, a vacuum cleaner and maybe a little advertising. Jim McNaughton needed much more. Hammac, his comic-book company in Waterville, Maine, had done well with one science-fiction book, and he felt it was time to expand. He had artists working on six new titles before he realized he couldn’t afford to pay printing costs, and he was turned down by two banks for a loan. “My company was about to go under,” says McNaughton, 27. Then he heard about the ad.

Franklin, meanwhile, had already helped 14 people and thought he was finished. But when McNaughton called, he was overwhelmed by the man’s energy and enthusiasm. Three days later Franklin drove to Waterville with a stack of checks in hand—one for $2,500 to cover McNaughton’s personal bills, another $10,000 for his printers and artists, and $10,000 more to buy out two of McNaughton’s partners, who Franklin felt were not working as hard as they should. McNaughton was flabbergasted. “I wanted to have a contract,” he says “but David said, ‘My word’s good, and I can tell yours is too.’ Everything would have folded without him.”

Franklin was moved as well by the plight of Russell Chase, 53, who was released in July from a federal prison in upstate New York after doing 19½ years for bank robbery. Chase wants to be an artist, so David got him working on the cover of one of McNaughton’s comic books. He has had no luck so far in getting any of the Portland galleries to hang his paintings, but Chase is undaunted. “This is giving me a feeling of looking ahead for the first time in my life,” he says. “I know I’m going to make it.”

Franklin is confident that Chase and the others will do just that and doesn’t give much thought to how soon he might recoup his investments. “He’s never spent money on himself—no fancy clothes or cars or anything like that,” says his mother, Jean, who admits to being more than a little stunned by his generosity to strangers. “People ask me why with a rich son I’m still a driving a bus. I say, ‘Well, I don’t want David’s money. I have my life and he has his.’ ” Franklin, who is still answering 20 or 30 calls a day—from people he must now turn away—is delighted with the way things have turned out. Of all the people he has helped with his money, he believes, no one has benefited more than himself. “I feel like crying 20 times a day from happiness,” he says. “I wish I had an uncle who left me $100 million. The way I feel now, I’d give it all away.”

—Dirk Mathison in Portland

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