New Selectman John Toner's Greenwich roots deeply planted

John Toner is a product of Greenwich, and in his 68 years in town, he's seen both the highs and lows that the community has to offer.

As a banking executive with a liking for Brooks Brothers' suits, he has been at the top of the business world and spent time in Wall Street boardrooms and European financial capitals. He commuted to Manhattan and traveled to Bermuda three times a year for work.

A man of steady habits and diligence, he rose to the rank of vice-president at Chase Manhattan Bank. He's also not above working volunteer shifts at much less glamorous locations -- he ran the book exchange at the town's waste station, wearing casual clothes.

Toner will now be putting his extensive knowledge of the community to work in the coming year, following his appointment to the Board of Selectmen this week to fill a vacancy caused by the death of David Theis.

Toner said he has great affection for his hometown.

"I grew up here. It's a great town to grow up in and it's a great town to grow old in," he said.

The new appointee said he brings a fair-minded approach to the public realm and keen eye for detail.

"I think I have an open mind, and the ability to analyze," he said.

He also has a deep knowledge of Greenwich.

"It's not the billionaire town people think that it is. It has issues that need to be solved. And there are pockets of poverty that people aren't aware of. There's a lot to be done here. But the quality of life is high," he said.

Speaking during a recent interview at his book-lined and airy condomimium on Pemberwick Road, Toner talked of his longtime commitment to Greenwich.

Toner was born to immigrant parents -- his mother was from Tyrone in Northern Ireland, his father from County Donegal in the Irish Republic. He was a railroad clerk, she was a homemaker. They met in Greenwich.

"Greenwich was a great melting pot back then," Toner said. And like many new immigrants, they had grand hopes for their children.

"They were big believers in education," he said.

Toner went to college at Fairfield University, majoring in English, followed by a master's degree in education from Manhattanville College.

He was in college when he heard about opportunities in the Peace Corps. Motivated by the idealism promoted by President John F. Kennedy -- a political influence on Toner, along with President Ronald Reagan -- he joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Ghana.

"I went in with a B.A. in English and came back with the experience of the world," he said.

Standing well over 6 feet tall with piercing blue eyes and given to precise diction, Toner looks like he might be central casting's ideal of an English teacher, and he did a teaching stint in Westchester County. But life in the classroom did not suit him, he said. With an aptitude for numbers and desire to travel, he went into banking instead.

"I wanted to go on the international side of it, and Chase was big on hiring people from the Peace Corps," he said.

The former executive, who is single, did a lot of traveling during his career, eventually working in global securities. But he always wanted to keep a place in his hometown, he said.

As he approached the end of his banking career in 2001, he remembers thinking, "When I retire, I need an avenue back to Greenwich."

Toward that goal, Toner has been serving on the Representative Town Meeting since 1998. He also has been an active volunteer with an interest in transportation, the sick and the elderly.

For his volunteer work with Call a Ride, which offers transportation for seniors, Toner said, "I've taken a woman with a dog to the vet, and a woman with trash to the town dump."

He was also president of the volunteer auxiliary at Greenwich Hospital, overseeing a force of 700 volunteers.

State Rep. Livvy Floren, a friend and colleague who has worked with Toner on numerous civic and political causes, said, "If there's a need, he'll fill it."

Citing the numerous volunteer commitments Toner has taken on, Floren said, "He's a genuinely nice person who really cares about this town. And so, so rooted."

Toner has been a longtime figure in Republican politics, running campaigns and managing finances. While serving on the Republican Town Committee, he was ousted three years ago following an internal election.

"At first it was kind of a shock. It needs new blood. No hard feelings," he said.

He said he enjoys the campaign trail and working with volunteers in the community.

"I get satisfaction dealing with people, it's something I enjoy," he said.

Toner can't say what he will do about running for the seat when his term expires in November.

"I'm going to see how it all plays out," he said, noting it is likely other Republicans will take an interest in running. "I'll see how the role fits and if I want to go on with it."

In his spare time, Toner enjoys listening to classical music and reading. He regularly reads financial magazines like the Economist, Money, Kiplinger and Forbes. He goes to the Byram Shubert Library to read the Wall Street Journal. Toner wakes up around 5:30 a.m. every day, a hold-over from his commuting days he can't shake.

"I like to keep active, doing things," he said. A recent knee operation has slowed him down and required the temporary use of a cane, but Toner projects an air of vigor, despite the weakened leg.

Toner's sister, Roni Schmitz, said her brother is always reliable. When she was in rehabilitation for a serious medical condition in 2005, she recalled, he came to visit every single day for five months. The trips took him to Bridgeport and Mamaroneck, N.Y.

"He came just for moral support. Very dedicated. If he says he's going to do something, he'll do it," she said.