'Know thyself' Shamokin native, 78, says perseverance helped him climb corporate ladder and Mt. Kilimanjaro
SHAMOKIN - Tom Glennon has come a long way since working on the floor of the Shroyer Dress Factory.
He climbed to the top of the textile industry's corporate ladder from the very bottom rung, and was able to transition into a fine real estate career when the domestic textile industry was turned on its head by free trade agreements.
It was persistence that was key to his businesses successes, he said, and it was that same character trait that, in 2011 at the age of 77, helped him climb to the summit of the tallest free-standing mountain on Earth - Mount Kilimanjaro.
"I was very focused. That's what I wanted to do. It wasn't about staying (in Africa) and going on a safari after. It was just about (the climb)," Glennon said by telephone last week from his home in Greenville, N.C., where he lives with his wife, Alice.
Looking back on his experience of having walked, hiked and pulled himself up onto Uhuru Peak, 19,340 feet above sea level, Glennon said, "The thing I was left with was realizing that all the strength you need to do something is really within you and the key is to really persevere.
"Quite frankly, that's the way my life has been since I left Shamokin."
Glennon, who will turn 79 later this year, was born to James P. and Stella (Ghezzi) Glennon in Shamokin State Hospital in 1934. His father, a former city fire chief, also was a former city councilman, as was his late brother, John.
He played on and eventually captained the Shamokin High School football team at a time when it switched formations from the single wing to the T, a time far enough back, he says, that the helmets were leather.
He swept the floors of Shroyer's while a high school student. After graduating in 1954 he headed west to California. Skills he learned while at Shroyer's, now long-since shuttered, helped lead him to a career in the textile industry.
"I was what you call vertical. I started out with the yarn, and did the knitting, and the weaving, and the dying, and the finishing," he said.
Glennon didn't stop at labor. He went on to own 23 companies and, at one point, employed 4,000 American workers.
He turned to real estate development when the North American Free Trade Agreement reached the horizon, and has since founded and remains president of Prime Investments and Development LLC, Greenville, which owns and manages four Hilton hotels and a convention center in eastern North Carolina.
From quite a distance, Glennon had his eye on Kilimanjaro. He hikes a bit in western Carolina and maintains a healthy workout regimen, he says. When he set his mind to attempt to climb the African mountain, he prepared by hiking and later climbing Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Ida's no slouch. Its summit is 12,880 feet. But he says the climb is hardly comparable to that of Kilimanjaro.
Glennon traveled to Tanzania and hiked with a group from New York, as well as Gordon Koltis, also of Greenville. He went with no family. He went with no large group of friends. The experience, he says, was highly personal.
They took on Kilimanjaro using the Shira Route on its Western Breach via Arrow Glacier, a popular route because of its natural aesthetics. It's also a physically grueling route that includes a 3,000 foot vertical climb up a rock face, and presents multiple climate zones.
The cold is very cold; 15-degrees below zero. Drinking water freezes, even when nestled inside clothing. Glennon was frostbitten. Eating is extremely important because of the amount of exertion the body endures. Even that task can be difficult.
"You just can't eat enough or carry enough that high," he said.
At 15,000 feet, Glennon says oxygen is at a premium. He likened it to putting a larger straw in one's mouth, blocking the nasal passages so as only being able to breath through the mouth - and then taking a walk.
"You just can't get enough air. Everybody gets sick because of high altitude," he said.
The lack of oxygen made it nearly impossible to sleep, he says. He described repeatedly being jolted awake because the body thinks it's suffocating.
Breathing techniques are employed, but it's an experience difficult enough that, when combined with the physicality of climbing, taxes the mental wherewithal.
As Glennon put it, of all people who fly to Tanzania with the thought of reaching Uhuru Peak, only about one-third actually make it there. And people don't just quit; they die.
At 18,700 feet, the night before the summit, the group slept in the crater of a volcano. All around them were glaciers extending another five or 10 stories above them. It was beautiful, he says, and unreal.
On the sixth day they reached Uhuru Peak, and Glennon reached his goal.
"When I got to the top, my first feeling was gratitude to be able to get there," he said, acknowledging the odds were not in his favor. "The second one was I can't believe I did this."
Trekkers don't dawdle long at 19,340 feet above sea level. Photos are taken; congratulations shared, and a few long stares into space above the wild are had.
Glennon's visit to the summit happened to occur on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The members of the New York hiking group he was with had all experienced the loss of friends and loved ones in the attacks, and they pledged to climb Kilimanjaro in memory of those who died, he says, something initially unbeknownst to him.
They raised a commemorative American flag, and the moment was emotional.
"They were on a mission. Here it was 10 years later. You couldn't help but be part of it," he said. "It was a tearful thing."
Many who make it to Uhuru leave something behind. Glennon did. But what that was he's keeping to himself.
The descent is much less demanding than the climb. It took two days to get off Kilimanjaro.
"When you finally get down, it's total exhaustion," he says.
Afterward, he spent three days alone to rest. He estimated he had lost 12 pounds. What he gained was affirmation of his own will to persevere.
"It definitely changed me, I would guess in a lot of ways. Was it about ego satisfaction? Not really. It was more of realizing that ...," Glennon said before trailing off, then restarting with a quote from Socrates. "Know thyself. If you think you can do something and prepare for it, you usually can if you're willing to persevere."
At 77 years old, Glennon wasn't the oldest to climb Kilimanjaro. According to Guinness World Records, an 84-year-old man made the climb less than a month after Glennon's trek. Perhaps that record could be eclipsed by Glennon himself one day.
"Maybe if I'm still around in another five years or so I'll go back and be the oldest to go up the trail," he said.