From School Days To Show Rooms, The Journey Of Richard Fenton

Richard Fenton ('54), a Stuyvesant alum, overcame a challenging high school experience and pursued a successful career as the owner of an international decorative home furnishings business, demonstrating that one's early academic struggles do not define future success.

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By Richard Fenton

Name: Richard Fenton

Age: 86

Date of Birth: August 1937

Graduation Year: 1954

Occupation: Owner of an international decorative home furnishings business

Bio: Richard Fenton has had a long and successful career in home furnishing. After graduating from Stuyvesant, he attended the NYU School of Commerce, Accounts and Finance (presently the Stern School of Business) while carrying a full-time job in the NBC mailroom in his sophomore, junior, and senior years. After graduation, he went into the family business and helped to expand it into a medium-sized company in the industry, more than capable of comfortably supporting his five-person family. Eventually, the introduction of the Internet fundamentally changed the decorative business industry. He chose to liquidate the business and retired.

From a brief stint in the NBC mailroom and at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to traveling around the world as the owner of a midsize international decorative home furnishings business, Stuyvesant alumni Richard Fenton (‘54) has had a very successful and intriguing life. Born in Manhattan, Fenton was raised by a single mother who instilled the value of money into the young Fenton and encouraged him to work from an early age. “From the age of 14, I worked as an usher in the movie theaters around my house,” Fenton said.

Fenton chose to go to Stuyvesant because he perceived it as the most convenient prestigious school for him. “[In those days] there were two schools which were more elite than any of the other even specialized high schools, in my opinion, and one was Bronx Science and the other was Stuyvesant High School. In those days, you could only take the test for one of them because they gave the test purposely at the same time,” Fenton said. “Stuyvesant was more convenient for me because of the subway and [the fact] I lived on the West Side of Manhattan.”

Fenton did not have the best Stuyvesant experience due to a lack of compatibility between his talents and the STEM subjects that the school primarily focused on. “[My] interests were not in science and math. I loved history, I loved art, I loved music, I loved literature, I loved politics and discussion, and all the things I know Stuyvesant offers but the direction of the school is science and math,” Fenton said. “Oh, I hated trigonometry and it was hard for me to keep my head above water in algebra, which is simple compared to trigonometry.”

Primarily due to his lack of interest in many of the hardest required courses, he struggled academically. “I came through with a C average which [at the time] was normal,” Fenton said. Even though it wasn’t necessarily terrible, being precisely average when he was used to excelling weighed on Fenton.

One experience at Stuy that stuck with Fenton may seem out-of-character to today’s Stuyvesant students. “I got into an argument with a guy in the school one day, and he was big, strong, and was waiting downstairs when I got out of school. And he pushed for a fight. And I was pretty big. I wasn't a fighter and luck would have it that he swung at me and I swung back. I was lucky, and I hit him with a haymaker and he went down,” Fenton recounted. “When he got up, he had a knife strapped to his [pants] leg, and he said ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’”

To the school’s credit, Fenton remarked that they handled this threat incredibly well. “They asked [a] teacher if every day he would walk me from the school to the subway, just to make sure that I got to the subway and that this guy was not waiting for me,” Fenton explained. “I thought the school came through for me [in] that way.”

However, as a result of his general view of the school, Fenton was not particularly sad when his family moved to Teaneck during his senior year. There, he transferred to Teaneck High School. “I suspect that there are people who go to Stuyvesant who are not science and math motivated, but they go there because of the reputation of the school and my sense is that, for those people, it’s probably better to go to a regular school,” Fenton said.

After graduating from high school, he went to the NYU School of Commerce, Accounts and Finance. Throughout college, he always held a part-time job along with attending school, which led to a great deal of excess stress. “I pushed myself too much in college and there was no reason to do it,” Fenton said. “[I] worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, full time, and I went to school from 9 am to 9 pm on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Even after he stopped working for that company, Fenton continued to spend huge amounts of time at work. As a sophomore, junior, and senior he worked full-time in the NBC mailroom. “[I worked] the afternoon shift which [was] from 12 until eight at night, I [walked] from school to the Sixth Avenue subway, [took] it right up to Rockefeller Center, and I [was] there by 12:30,” Fenton said.

After graduation, he went into, at the time, a quite small family business where he discovered a love for public relations. “What I loved to do was the advertising, the press releases, the seminars, the speeches, the promotions. It was fun and I was good at it,” Fenton recounted. 

While the business was not Sears, it grew to be quite large. “We were too big to be small and too small to be big,” Fenton said. “We ultimately reached the point where we had six showrooms across the country in New York, High Point, North Carolina—-which was the major furniture market in America—Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco.”

Eventually, though, the industry began to change. “The furniture industry at retail grew substantially after the Second World War when the soldiers came home and many of them went into the retail furniture business and they picked up great locations on major highways, they [opened] their stores. But the next generation after that really wasn't interested in retail, they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so on. And these owners began to sell out their [family] stores, to major chains like Target and Walmart because the locations were so good,” Fenton explained. This industry-wide shift made the family business that had been so fun and fulfilling to run tedious for Fenton. “[My wife] thought for one second and said you know, I used to wake up every morning and wonder what exciting and fun thing is going to happen today, and now I wake up in the morning and say what garbage is going to happen today,” Fenton said. 

After a fulfilling 40-year career in the furniture industry, Fenton decided it was finally time to retire. The family was initially going to sell the business but found that the terms being offered were unacceptable. “We had offers to sell our business but they wanted us to take a contract for five years, and we discussed it and thought if we have to work another five years we might as well do it ourselves,” Fenton said. “In 2000 we liquidated the business and [I] retired.”

As part of working for his company, Fenton went to a wide variety of countries and lived a very wide variety of experiences. His career primarily utilized his public relations skills to help maintain sales from his company, which is by no means a conventional Stuyvesant student path. His story displays that even a poor high school experience is not a prophecy that determines the rest of your life.