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There's a reason he digs through trash

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Walk into Glenn Banker's mobile home, and you'll quickly realize this man has a passion for cans _ thousands and thousands of them.

Banker's porch is filled floor to ceiling with black garbage bags, about 10,000 cans' worth.

Banker, 88, spends his retirement digging through trash bins and collecting cans seven days a week, six hours a day.

"I just felt if I'm in it, I might as well put my full time in it," said Banker, who has lived in North Kenwood since 1995.

Banker presented the United Way of Tampa Bay with a $500 check Monday, the proceeds of about 60,000 cans. And he plans to donate $500 to the Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N, where he plays pool in the afternoons after his can run.

"Whenever I can help somebody, it sends me," Banker said. "It just comes natural."

During the past 14 years, Banker's philanthropy has stretched across the three states where he has lived: Florida, West Virginia and New York.

He has collected 800,000 cans.

Some cans go up to Michigan with his neighbors, where they can get 10 cents for each of Banker's finds. Others go to a St. Petersburg recycling company, where Banker sells the aluminum for 40 cents a pound. All the pop tops go up to Canada with other neighbors, where they are donated to the Red Cross. All of the proceeds _ $1,640 for 124,000 cans last year _ go to charity.

To have success in can collecting, Banker needs a network of supporters. Every day he goes to eight motels that allow him to dig through their trash bins. About six friends on his route drop off any cans they have collected. His contributors range from housekeepers to frequent motel guests, including one couple at a motel on his route.

"They're real beer drinkers, so I get a lot of cans there," Banker said.

Banker picks up hundreds of beer cans in a day, even though he can't stand the smell of beer. If he's lucky, he'll come across a stash of vaunted Guinness cans, which can be redeemed for 10 cents in Michigan. At each of the motels, Banker pries open the garbage bin, then uses a pronged metal instrument to pick out the cans and put them in bags.

Occasionally he has come across other treasures. He has found two $20 bills, a nearly new suitcase, crutches and one bag of 75 pennies. But more often, Banker comes across insects, rodents and foul smells.

"When it's hot weather and the smell is horrid, I almost throw up," he said.

But all the struggles pay off when Banker sees his work going to good causes.

The pop tops he collected bought a wheelchair for a disabled Canadian woman, Banker says with a broad smile.

Banker learned the value of hard work in 1935, during the Depression, when he incubated and raised 86,000 chicks in four months, selling them for a penny each. After years in the feed and dress poultry businesses in New York state, Banker bought an auto dealership in 1946. Later he owned a restaurant on Cayuga Lake in New York, and then moved to West Virginia, where he raised horses, including one that raced in the 1969 Preakness. Soon after retiring at 72, Banker got a wake-up call, when a doctor told him his cholesterol was dangerously high.

"If I hadn't discovered I had 439 cholesterol, I probably wouldn't be alive," said Banker, who had quadruple-bypass surgery. To cut his cholesterol, Banker began walking regularly. Appalled by the trash on the side of the road, Banker began to clean it up, separating the cans and other litter.

"I walked for a couple months and after that I couldn't stand the trash," he said. "It was just so bad that I had to pick it up."

Banker would walk about 6 miles a day, cleaning up the Summit Point, W.Va., road that his wife, Gladys, drove every morning.

"She inspired me, because she liked clean roads when she drove to work," he said. "We both believed in helping other people."

After his wife died in 1994, Banker continued the family tradition of philanthropy.

Outside his mobile home, Banker grows oranges, tomatoes, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables, which he gives to his regular can donors.

"I don't like tomatoes. I give them away. I could eat this broccoli," he says, but "I'd rather give it away."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this article.