Horatio Alger should have written his story...
Yes, America’s famed “rags to riches” novelist, who wrote a great many novels about young men of poor origins who made good by dint of hard work, could have written one of them about Englewood’s Larry Sargent. Really? Hear me out.
Born in 1945, the fourth of five children of Harold and Dora Sargent, Larry lost three of his siblings at tragically young ages. Ma and Pa Sargent ran a “Ma and Pa” store in Granville, Ohio, where they raised Larry and his older brother Wes. Granville was home to Denison University, a small, private liberal arts college of about 2,000 students, and had a diverse population of about 3,000 permanent residents, most of them middle-class or blue collar workers. During their growing-up years, Wes and Larry put in many hours doing menial tasks in the store after school and on weekends. “Our dad paid us, but we had to set some of the money aside to be used for college expenses,” Larry remembers. He learned something about the value of money. With a college in town, the incentive to earn a college education was strong, but these meager savings could not realistically make much of a dent in college costs.
Larry proclaims that he was a “mediocre” student in grade school and high school—he was more interested in sports than studies—but by dint of hard labor as a tight end on the Granville High School football team, he earned a full scholarship to Toledo University (enrollment 18,000) in 1963. He was a starter on the TU team for two years. Again, he achieved no academic honors, but he allows that he “had a very good time in college.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in business, but more importantly for his career, he (1) met his future wife, Penelope, a student at the University of Michigan, and (2) entered the U.S. Army ROTC program, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1968. In 1969 he and Penelope were married, and he awaited his first military assignment. There was an active war going on in Vietnam, but Larry hoped for a deployment in Europe, where the U.S. maintained several Army bases. “I was interested in the Armored Cavalry,” he says. “That would send me to Germany, because there were no armored divisions in Vietnam at that time.” But while the Vietnam War was slowly devolving into a standoff, the military leaders were making one last effort to turn the tide of battle. Lt. Sargent was sent to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. Penelope stayed at home in Toledo, Ohio.
“I was a platoon leader in the field near the Cambodian border,” he says. “We had 6 armored personnel carriers and 3 light MM551 Sheridan tanks.” The Viet Cong stationed their troops behind the border in Cambodia and would swoop in on raids during the day, retreating to safety in Cambodia at night, because U.S. troops had been restricted to fighting only within Vietnam. “But we did cross the Cambodian border. I was expecting that we’d encounter heavy fire, but I was surprised that the resistance was relatively light. And I surprised myself. Our platoon was behind the border for two or three weeks, under fire, and I was responsible for them. We came out okay.” Indeed they did. Larry received two Bronze Stars for “heroic or meritorious achievement,” with a V device for combat valor. And he learned something about managing men.
The last three months of his deployment in Vietnam (now a 1st Lieutenant) he served as Executive Officer of his group, and he came back to the United States in October to spend his final year as a personnel officer at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, where Penelope was able to join him. Larry made Captain in 1970 and was honorably discharged in October of 1971—knowing that he did not want to make a career in the military, but not knowing exactly what career path he wanted to follow.
“I had a couple of job interviews, one with Readers Digest and one with General Motors,” he recalls. He took the GM job in Muncie, Indiana as a production supervisor in a division that made car batteries. He stayed for four-and-a-half years, but the final two years were personally discomfiting. While he represented management in negotiations with the union stewards, “I struggled with the constant lack of cooperation between management and the unions,” he says. He had proven himself a leader in Vietnam, and he and his troops had shared a mutual trust and respect for one another. This was different. Larry knew he wanted a job where he could make his own decisions and live with the results. So during those last two years at GM, he researched the opportunities for leaving the company to be his own boss. And in 1976 he made a life-changing decision.
“I met with a friend who was a manager with State Farm insurance, and he talked with me about being in the insurance business. Penelope and I now had three kids. Thad was 5, and the twins, Kevin and Michael, were 2 years old.” They wanted to go back to Larry’s hometown in Granville, where he had family ties and many friends. But they had limited funds. Larry had never sold a product or service. He had never run a business or worked without a boss to report to. He had no experience in budgeting and strategic planning for a business. He was a relative novice in the insurance field. But he wanted to go it alone. “I sat down with Penelope and handed her our checkbook. I said, ‘You’re in charge of the money. Just two things: Don’t question me about what I’m doing for the business, and don’t talk to me about money until we’re broke. If I fail, it’s my fault entirely. But I want to bet on myself.’ ” Penelope agreed. She was willing to bet on him, too. Thus was the Larry Sargent Insurance Agency born.
“She ran the house, and I ran the business,” Larry says. And with her background in finance, she was initially Larry’s accountant. Later on, after the kids were grown up enough, Penelope had a career of her own, becoming Vice President, Commercial Loans for a bank near Granville. “She was much smarter than I was,” he says. “I caught her in a weak moment.”
The company thrived. Larry kept an affiliation with State Farm for 30 years, and his agency grew to one of State Farm’s largest in Ohio. “I loved working with the public,” he says. “These people were my friends and neighbors in our small town. They were good people: honest, loyal, trusting, wanting to do the right thing. Most of them were hard-working, blue-collar folks, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help them. I never sold a customer a product he or she didn’t need.”
And Larry did sell a lot of products and services: life insurance, home/auto, casualty, commercial insurance and later on mutual funds and estate planning advice. He was a top performer for State Farm and annually earned the “incentive travel” bonuses the company offered: trips to Hawaii, Rome, Paris, Austria, Switzerland. But he points out that “I wrote the policies for the people, not for the rewards I might get. I believed in what I was doing.” Horatio Alger would have approved.
Because his business allowed him a flexible schedule, Larry was able to fulfill the commitment he felt for his community. He served on several community boards. He was president of the Granville Rotary Club, the Granville Community Foundation and the Licking County Life Underwriters Association. And he was able to help coach the Granville High School football team for seven years while his sons were playing. Hear that, Horatio?
In 2006 Larry and Penelope retired and came to Florida, having first spent several years in determining just where they wanted to live. They spend the hot months in Granville and the fall, winter and spring in Englewood. They love the area and the people. They like outdoor activities—for Larry, bicycling and “plugging away at golf,” at which he is known to be long and wild. And he is a formidable poker player, sometimes being asked by his fellow players why he is still taking money away from his friends. The guy is a success even in his retirement.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.