Even though it was a life-changing moment, my father delivered the news to me casually — as though it was no big deal. We were in the middle of a conversation about something entirely different.
“By the way,” he said with no warning, “there won’t be any more money.”
I didn’t know what he meant, so I asked what he was talking about. He said he wouldn’t be able to invest any more money in my small startup newspaper company. This floored me, because he had promised a lot more money. I had had no reason to doubt him, so I wasn’t prepared.
My ex-wife and I had launched a weekly newspaper for Birmingham’s affluent southern suburbs. My father had unexpectedly offered to finance the project. It was hard to pin him down about exactly how much money he would invest, but he repeatedly told me not to worry. So I spent the first year building a newspaper that local people loved to read. But now he was telling me there was no more money. No warning. Not a penny more. No explanation.
What I didn’t know that day — and wouldn’t learn until I pieced it together over the next few years — is that the money he had been investing was all stolen. He had been embezzling — millions of dollars — for years.
There was no more money because he had been caught.
I’ll never know the details about how his long-term theft ended. He wouldn’t even acknowledge it for years. About 15 years later, he finally gave me a grudging admission of what I had already come to know, but in those brief seconds when he made the admission, he also gave me an excuse to justify it.
I don’t know the exact amount of money he stole, but I understand that it was millions of dollars.
My father worked as an administrative assistant to a man who owned and operated several coal companies. This man was a good businessman who made a lot of money and then finally sold his operation to a large mining company from the West. He retired as a very wealthy man — and he had tremendous assets to manage.
My father controlled all of that money. The wealthy man completely trusted him.
The theft started when my grandparents were in a nursing home near the end of their lives. My father didn’t have enough money to pay their bills — and they would have been sent to a terrible state institution if he hadn’t paid — so he started embezzling to pay their nursing home bills. That was his excuse, anyway.
Once he started stealing, it was apparently easy to get away with — and he never stopped. Even after his parents were dead, he stole over and over again.
He stole the money to buy a huge chunk of land and build a road to a home site. He had to build a bridge and run utilities for miles. The house was very nice — his dream home. My guess is that the house would cost close to a million dollars to build today, partly because of expensive changes he made along the way. (I might be off about the cost, but that’s not really the point.)
He bought fancy things for his wife. First it was a Cadillac and later a Mercedes. There was a mink coat and jewelry. He was spending money that was insane for someone who made what he presumably made. I once asked him how he had been able to do so well since his job had paid something relatively modest.
“Really good investments,” he said.
When I pressed him for details about how I could do the same thing, he couldn’t tell me. I was genuinely interested in his secrets to wealth. What I didn’t know is that he had no secrets to making money — only how to embezzle it. And he wasn’t going to tell me that.
When it came time for me to start my newspaper, he was eager to hand me the money. He never advanced me enough to keep us from feeling as though we were broke every week or two, but after I would make another trip to his office and grovel, he would advance me what I had to have — and make me feel terrible for asking for what he had promised.
It was a very dysfunctional business arrangement.
When he suddenly quit providing more money, I scrambled for new investors — while still struggling to get the newspaper out each week. The worst part is that I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. Potential investors wanted to know how we could have ended up with such a terrible need for cash. Why hadn’t we managed our cash flow and planned for this?
I couldn’t answer that question. I still didn’t even know all the facts. I couldn’t even tell my own employees what was going on, including the man I had hired to manage our finances. Things moved rapidly as we scrambled to move around assets — co-mingling personal and company funds at random — just to stay afloat.
Within a month or so, I had to shut the newspaper down. We were out of cash. Announcing to my remaining employees that they were out of jobs was one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve ever done. I was humiliated and I knew I had let them down.
I don’t know whether something in the wealthy man’s accounting system finally flagged missing money or if guilt finally led my father to confess. It’s hard to see him voluntarily admitting to anything, but I’ll never know.
This wealthy man — who had trusted my father for years and treated him like a member of his family — took mercy on him. They came to an agreement — through lawyers — that the wealthy man would take every penny my father owned. Every bit of money. Every property. Everything. But he wouldn’t prosecute him. My father wouldn’t go to prison.
My father’s second wife divorced him. I never spoke to her again, so I don’t know her perspective. My father wouldn’t talk to any of us about what had happened. We just knew he was suddenly without a home and without any money. He moved west for a couple of years. He didn’t talk to any of us for those years. He lived in Nevada and California for awhile, but it’s unclear what he did.
Back in the period when it was first becoming obvious that something was amiss with him — when he had already left his long-time job but still had his home and assets — my ex-wife and my sisters and I arranged for him to come to my condo in Birmingham so we could confront him.
We were hearing vague rumors from friends back in Jasper, Ala. — where all this took place — that there was “something going on with your father.” Nobody would tell us anything more than that. We just had friends asking us what was going on — but wanting to change the subject when we tried to get more information.
When we got my father alone at my home, I outlined that we were hearing rumors that there was something going on with him. I told him that we thought we deserved to know what was happening — since there was talk on the street among our old friends about some scandal.
I will never forget him looking right at me very calmly.
“There’s nothing going on,” he said with sincerity. “I have no idea what anyone could be talking about.”
My father humiliated us, but he wouldn’t confess the truth. As we started learning bits and pieces of what had happened, we were embarrassed that our old friends from where we had gone to high school knew about this terrible thing — which at the time seemed to reflect on us. At least that’s the way I felt.
We were the last to know about the scandal. He didn’t care enough about us to warn us about what was coming or even to be honest when we begged him to tell us the truth.
My father always projected the air of being Mr. Morality. This was the last thing I expected of him.
For a long time, I felt like a failure for the shutdown of my newspaper. It was my first big business venture and I fell on my face. I couldn’t explain the reasons to anyone. I didn’t even know all the details. From the vantage point of all these years later, I realize it wasn’t so simple as me being a failure.
Yes, I failed. Yes, I trusted the wrong person. Yes, I was unprepared to handle the fallout and I was too inexperienced to know how to fix things quickly enough.
But the truth is that my father failed me.
He broke the trust of those who believed he was trustworthy. He failed the wealthy man from whom he stole. He failed me because he couldn’t keep his promises.
Most of all, he failed all of us who believed in him to any degree. Despite all the things I was starting to realize about him — and despite all the things one of my sisters had realized about him far before I did — none of us believed he was a thief.
When I was a little boy, I believed he must be great. Don’t all children have some such belief in their parents? Despite all the things he had done to me, I clung to that child-like belief in some vague way.
By stealing millions of dollars, he destroyed the last of my faith and trust in him. He wasn’t the man I had wanted him to be. I never recovered my faith in him.
In a way, that was the last betrayal of my dysfunctional childhood.