By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Life was not always promising for Michael Grenier.
In November 1994, at the age of 14 weeks, he was taken in by his grandmother Joanne Naumann because his mother was unable to care for him.
Two years later, Naumann became his legal guardian and has raised a child who turned into a remarkable young man.
Despite elementary school years in which, Grenier believes, the stigma of being poor may have contributed to his bad attitude he was able – just like the dozens of young men created by author Horatio Alger – to pull himself up by his bootstraps.
“I had lots of detention in elementary school. There were many opportunities to be dragged down.”
He had a guidance counselor who still stays in touch. “It did wonders” to have a compassionate listener.” He also gravitated toward kids who set the bar higher, “friends I could emulate.”
Now 18 and an honor student at North Kingstown High School, Grenier has been named one of 104 national Horatio Alger Scholars. There were 50,000 applicants.
“A lot of people are very proud of him,” says Naumann, noting that when Michael was a baby a handful of local lawmakers including former state Representatives Melvoid Benson, Harold Cutting and Ken Carter supported her custody battle.
“Really, the village raised him,” she recalls. “He had about six women he called ‘grammie.’”
By winning the Alger scholarship – and a host of other awards for high grades and his musical ability – Naumann adds that Michael “has beaten the statistics of kids being raised by grandparents and those on the low-income side of things.”
It is precisely the sort of story that Alger, a native of Chelsea, Mass. who briefly taught in Rhode Island, promoted. During the 19th Century, Alger churned out a seemingly endless series of stories in which impoverished boys rise from humble backgrounds to attain achievement and financial security.
Grenier will receive a total of $20,000 toward his bachelor’s degree and when he goes for his master’s, which he plans to do, there is further help from the Alger organization that’s available only to its national scholars.
The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans was founded in 1947 to increase an understanding in young people of the value of economic opportunity. According to its website, by awarding “much-needed scholarships” the organization honors “Horatio Alger heroes” and it helps create the “heroes of the future.”
In its 65 years of existence the scholarship program has awarded more than $87 million.
From April 11-15, Grenier will be in Washington, D.C. for a dizzying array of sightseeing, seminars and networking opportunities – “It’s finances and government; like civics class on steroids,” he laughs – plus a black-tie dinner honoring the recipients. He has already sent in his measurements; the organization provides tuxedos to all its male honorees.
Traditionally, the awards dinner is attended by supporters of the organization who are donors and members. Among the many prominent and powerful members are Bill Gates, Tom Selleck and Quincy Jones.
“It’s an incredible opportunity” to be among such luminaries, says his grandmother.
Five Rhode Islanders were selected for statewide Alger recognition; each will receive $5,000. They are Kelsey Galipeau, of Narragansett High School; Matthew Findesen of Saint Raphael Academy, Pawtucket; Joshua Leitao of Mount Hope High, Providence; and Richard Potts and Nathan Satish, both of Burrillville High.
Grenier is the only national winner from Rhode Island.
The turning point in his life was the introduction, in fifth grade, to music. He subsequently caught the attention of Mike Iadevaia, band instructor at Wickford Middle School, who taught him clarinet. “I liked it,” he says simply.
Grenier switched to saxophone because “jazz is more my thing. Music was and is my favorite.”
He also sings and is in the high school’s annual musical production. This year he’s the anti-dancing Rev. Shaw Moore in “Footloose,” which will be performed March 9-11. He’s in the senior jazz band plus a jazz combo he started in his sophomore year that plays gigs at charitable events. He’s also a member of National Honor Society with a 3.66 grade point average, All-State jazz band and All-State choir.
Recently he was chosen in a competition to play in the Southern New England Honors Band which required him to make a recording and send it for judging. About 60 young musicians made the cut; the band will perform Saturday in a concert starting at 7 p.m. at the University of Rhode Island.
Last Sept. 22, Grenier joined the Rhode Island National Guard where he plays in the 88th Army Band. His enlistment provides basic college tuition that covers five classes per semester and the Alger money will underwrite such expenses as books, fees, food and private lessons. He signed on for six years.
“College was an issue,” says the young man who resembles Jim Parsons, the popular actor best known as the brainiac Sheldon on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
“There’s not a lot of money,” says Michael. “The National Guard offered a way out.”
Chief Warrant Officer Todd Garrepy of North Kingstown, director of the Army Band, went to the high school to talk up the band and Grenier was convinced.
“It meets weekly for four hours,” says. “I don’t have to go to Afghanistan; my mission is to raise morale for the other soldiers. I get free college [tuition] for playing music, helping others.”
He has already marched with the 88th Army Band.
“It’s a great experience, very precise and disciplined. Overall, my performance is much better; the music is on an extremely high level. I’m motivated by being around musicians who do extremely well. A couple of them are music majors and one is a teacher.”
Perhaps most excited by the news of Michael’s Alger honor is his band director, Toni-Annette Silveira.
“I’ve known Michael for four years and he is extremely dedicated. He is focused. When he knows that he wants to excel at something he will work very, very hard to get to the point he believes he should be. I’m very proud of him; I had no idea he was applying.”
She also supports his Guard enlistment.
Army Band director Garrepy, she says, “had talked [to me] about doing recruiting and offering this to students. Recently, with the economy, a lot more kids were considering this route. One student was accepted last year. He’s in the Guard and gets to go to music school for free. It’s a good option for Michael.”
Grenier is hoping to be accepted in time to start URI in the fall.
“My future is definitely music – jazz studies or music education.” Becoming an educator, he notes, would “give me the opportunity to introduce kids to music and have the Guard on the side.”
It has been part of his dream to play professionally and now, he says, as a member of the Army band, he’s doing just that. He will go through basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the heat of summer.
Among the Horatio Alger supporters is Dr. Maya Angelou, the iconic poet, teacher, historian, civil-rights activist, actress and author of, among other bestsellers, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
She was the topic of Michael’s contest-entry essay.
“She [survived] lots of struggles in her early life and went on to become a successful author and an important person,” he says of his choice of subject.
Michael, who also loves to write poetry, feels that Angelou is a kindred spirit and he hopes she will attend the dinner as she has in years past.
“I’ve come from a similar background and I look up to her. I want to jump over conflicts like she did.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .