Realizing Success in a Dying Town – Out With the Old

During a recent visit to the once thriving southwestern town of Tucumcari, New Mexico, located in Quay County on “Historic Route 66,” I wondered how businesses were surviving there during this floundering economy, especially since the town had been sputtering towards failure for more than a decade. The universe answered my mindful inquiry by presenting this example of how one businesswoman was making it, while an elder businessman was not.

Once named “Six Shooter Siding,” Tucumcari was founded in 1901 as a railroad construction camp. The 2000 census was 11 people short of reporting a population of 6000, but the count has since declined. The town occupies 7.5 square miles. Businesses in Tucumcari that exude a level of success are rare; they are few whose windows aren’t barred or boarded up. The prominent ones are banks like Wells Fargo and Everyone’s Federal Credit Union. (Yes, that is the credit union’s actual name). Set apart, with its clean, almost modern architecture, Mesalands Community College seems as though extraterrestrials had plopped it down one late evening unbeknownst to the local inhabitants. [But I could only logically equate such an event with Roswell, New Mexico, far to the south.]

On Main Street of Tucumcari’s “downtown,” the only business front that said, “successful” was Pajarito Interiors, owned and operated by Ruth Nelson, an interior decorator who (according to local news articles) earned her degree from the University of Hawaii and moved to New Mexico from Oregon several years ago. Pajarito Interiors’ Santa Fe adobe-style facade was clean, its paint fresh and stucco walls free of cracks. It had obviously been recently redesigned and updated compared to the buildings, up, down and across the street that sat in sad shape, windows boarded from vandal attacks, and having been long abandoned. An emaciated, feathery carcass of some now unidentifiable medium-sized bird-of-prey lay, splayed out in a display window where the raptor had accidentally flown in and failed in its escape. There it remained, in memoriam to its long suffering; for how long was anyone’s guess. The building adjacent to Pajarito Interiors, connected by a shared wall was Sands-Dosey Drugstore. It had burned a year ago. Its partially scorched-black walls remained half standing, reminiscent of a bombed-out structure from a recent war no one had heard about. Its long history destroyed in what must have been a matter of hours.

Ruth Nelson’s store is stocked with high-end home furnishing and decorator items. The interior walls hold a neutral hue that complements every other color found on unique, seemingly one-of-a-kind tables, sofas, chairs, and objects de arte . The ceiling lights softly light partitions that showcase special furnishings like a fashionably high table with a pair of plush-upholstered, matching chairs. In Tucumcari, with an estimated 80% of its population living on public assistance, it was an immediate mystery as to who among the locals could afford such exquisite items.

In an interview, Ruth Nelson said she moved to Tucumcari when she found a man with whom she thought she could spend the rest of her life; that being Donald Schutte, an attorney and now former state district judge. (Having been originally appointed by the governor, Schutte had lost last November’s election with his opponent winning nearly 2 votes to 1.) In local news articles, Nelson and Schutte have expressed plans to greatly improve downtown Tucumcari as they have filled key roles in the “Main Street” initiative with its mission to “bring back Tucumcari.” Nelson said her business was doing okay, but there was a time when she was realizing $7,000 to $10,000 in sales per week. That number sounded suspiciously exaggerated so I investigated further to find out the secret of how a businesswoman could be so successful in what appears to be a dying town. The answer came as a surprise.

In July, 2006, Ruth bought a home furnishings business from businessman Stanley Jennings. Stanley was 81 years old and thought it a good time to consider retiring. A veteran, and retired serviceman, Stanley was born in 1925 in his family’s ranch house home in Quay, New Mexico, about 17 miles south of Tucumcari. He grew up there. Stan (as his friends call him) remembers as a child having just one shirt which his mother would quickly wash every night when he got home from school. She would iron it in the morning right before he left to attend a one room school house that was located on an adjacent ranch a couple of miles away. He would walk or ride a horse to get there. As a teenager, Stan was a “soda jerk” at Sands-Dorsey Drugstore whose abandoned business location was the bombed out building, previously noted. He served in the Army Air Corp as a P-51 fighter pilot in Alaska, and was once state President of New Mexico Young Democrats, a time he was being groomed to run for a higher, future office. He attended pharmacy school in Albuquerque but quit when he got a C in one class believing that it disqualified him to graduate. He didn’t understand that is was a Grade Point Average (GPA) of a C or less that would have disqualified him. Unexpectedly, Stan’s father died far too young, and left Stan’s mother to cope with running a cattle ranch that was on the small side, as cattle ranches go. The ranch was encumbered with a large tax debt, as well. Stan accepted the responsibility, supporting his mother, wife and child.

Stan gave up pursuing ambitions outside of Tucumcari: the new, flourishing airline industry needed pilots, pharmacies were short-handed, and state level politics continued to beckon, but he kept busy on the home front. He was elected to the office of Quay County Assessor for several terms, continued on as a 4th generation rancher and founded a business in Tucumcari that he maintained for over 30 years. Tucumcari became home. He had married there; his only child had been born there. Janie, his wife, a school teacher who had taught for 26 years in Tucumcari, died there just short of their 50th wedding anniversary. Although now remarried, Stan has a burial place reserved beside Janie’s “place of rest.” He was an active member and held offices in the Kiwanis Club and currently holds the position of Chaplain in the local Masonic Lodge. Bottomline: Stan is a long-standing member of Tucumcari’s history. A dedicated community leader, he did everything expected of, above and beyond, many of his friends and peers who have passed away over the years. Since selling his business at the age of 81, what has happened to Stan in his golden years, within this small community he’s loved and served all his life ?

Now a jolly-round man with a quirky little smile, and friendly disposition, Stan owns and operates Fort Bascom Trading Post, where he is a seller of used odds and ends. At a glance, one would describe it as a southwest curio and junk store with a few interesting “pieces” scattered here and there. A private 45 rpm record “juke box” rumored to have belonged to movie star Grear Garson, a Bally’s nickel slot machine, and a coin-operated orchestrian that plays a tune for a quarter. There are the numerous Model As in various states of disrepair (rebuild); a couple look pretty complete. The business is housed in an old building whose interior is lighted by parallel rows of garish fluorescent lights that burn (a couple flicker) all day since the building’s large picture windows were permanently boarded up after being broken out by vandals.

Who’s buying this stuff? Nobody. “Economy’s bad,” Stan explains, “And I could sure use some sales, right now.” Since he used to offer financing (credit) to his customers, a lot of people still owe him money from the former business, and most of them aren’t paying. Stan has to file a claim (to garnish wages) against them, but can only do that if he has the extra $40 it costs to do so. Why don’t they pay? “People are hurtin’ here. They’ve been hurtin’ for as long as I can remember, and can’t afford to pay much for anything.” Most of Stan’s customers can’t qualify for a credit card, don’t have checking accounts, and “most live from paycheck to paycheck, if they’re lucky enough to get a paycheck,” he adds.

In 2006, Stan was approached by Ruth Nelson who wanted to buy his home furnishings business and transform it into her own decorator studio and interior design business. The deal was struck and Nelson’s live-in male companion (then district judge Donald Schutte) bought the building from Stan with no hitches. Schutte apparently gave the building to Nelson as she is singularly listed as the owner of record at the Quay County Tax Assessor’s Office. Nelson produced and presented a contract to Stan stating the terms under which she would purchase his business and inventory (valued at approximately $118,000 which Stan was discounting to her for approximately $63,000). Nelson was buying only the new merchandise from Stan and she understood that Stan would retain the used items to sell as used merchandise. Nelson was to pay for the inventory over time… or at least that’s what Stan believes one of the contracts stated. You see, Nelson presented a number of versions of the contract to Stan over several days. Trusting, and in good faith, Stan signed each version of the contract that Nelson presented to him, but Stan was never given a copy of the final contract. Stan repeatedly asked Nelson for a copy, but those requests were ignored.

In 2007, Stan spent 30 full days in hospital battling and overcoming a case of pneumonia from which most people his age would have died. While Stan was still recovering at home, Nelson wrote a letter charging Stan with breach of contract, citing that she had seen a (free, courtesy) phone listing (not an advertisement) for his business in a telephone directory, and that Nelson had been told by a customer (hearsay) that Stan’s staff had offered to order new items for them. For Nelson, these two events justified charging Stan with breach of a non-compete clause that was allegedly part of their terms of sale. This alleged breach therefore justified why she had the right to (abruptly) discontinue making payments to Stan for the inventory. Stan wasn’t offered an opportunity to discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, Stan was slowly recovering from his illness and gradually returning to work. Stan continued to struggle to make payments on the original business loan he had obtained to buy the inventory that Nelson had bought, but now refused to pay for. Nelson was selling that inventory for pure profit and was realizing huge success in a faltering economy. This may explain how there were times when Nelson was able to sell $7,000 to $10,000 worth of merchandise each week… for a while.

Now comes the rub. Stan’s family attorney (and CPA) refused to involve himself with a lawsuit against Nelson, not unlike five other attorneys across the state of New Mexico who, likewise, cited “conflicts of interest.” Apparently, Nelson’s live-in male companion (Schutte), the former New Mexico district judge and attorney also holds a seat on the New Mexico Bar Association Review Board, a position that could be politically dangerous for an opposing attorney to twiddle with.

Stan met with the sixth attorney in Albuquerque, a specialist in elder abuse law, who requested a $2000 retainer which he had borrowed from family members. To begin, the attorney requested a copy of the contract three times from Nelson who ignored the requests. The attorney wrote a letter of demand for payment to Ruth Nelson and Don Schutte. Schutte responded that he had nothing to do with the contract between Stanley Jennings and Ruth Nelson, and that Nelson would probably respond through her own legal counsel. (Keep in mind Nelson was living with Schutte, an attorney and former district judge capable of advising her in matters regarding business ethics, best practices, and taking appropriate legal actions.) Nelson did not respond to the letter.

The attorney told Stan that she would initiate a lawsuit against Nelson (and Nelson’s attorney-judge-pro-bono-legal-counsel boyfriend for his role) if Stan provides a $10,000 retainer… which will only pay for “discovery” and filing initial paperwork. A subsequent trial or further legal action would be at an additional expense to Stan. With what Stan owes already on the business loan for the inventory, and borrowing the initial attorney fees, the old man would be looking at $100,000 of debt at age 83. This level of debt he’d never experienced in his life. The attorney voiced concern that Stan might not be able to physically weather the depositions, inquiries, interrogation, investigation, trial, or trials to come. [In the event that Stan died, he wouldn’t be alive to pay for services rendered by the attorney, which probably explained the reason for such a large, up-front retainer.]

So now this elderly cornerstone of the community is caught in a no-win situation. Why? The attorney outlined Stan’s options and possible options of outcome:

1). If Stan initiates a lawsuit against Nelson (along with her attorney-judge-pro-bono-legal-counsel boyfriend), and wins, it may be ruled that Nelson must pay Stan’s legal fees, court costs, intangible and tangible damages that could total in excess of $100,000. Could (or would) Nelson pay this? Not if she demonstrates the inability to pay, and that might be pretty easy for her to do. Game over. Stan loses… and he would still owe court and legal costs… and would have to continue to pay on the business loan for the inventory.

2). If Stan initiates a lawsuit, odds are, Nelson (and her attorney-judge-pro-bono-legal-counsel boyfriend) would counter-sue Stan with the pointed strategy of elongating the legal process, thereby financially breaking and/or out-living the old man Stan. Game over. Stan loses with his debts being transferred to his estate, or to his elderly widow who also loses… along with his children and grandchildren (who may have had some sort of inheritance prior to such a lawsuit).

3). If Nelson counter-sues Stan and wins, Stan would probably be required to pay Nelson’s court costs, tangible and intangible damages, as well as legal costs to her now exorbitantly expensive attorney-judge-NOT pro-bono-legal-counsel boyfriend who will have suddenly transformed into the most expensive legal counsel on earth. Stan loses absolutely everything because the attorney-judge-legal-counsel boyfriend would probably file a lien against every asset Stan has.

New Mexico Attorney General, Gary King advocates a strong stance on the protection of elders against abuse, both physical and financial. Yet a representative from the New Mexico Adult Protective Services Division stated that Stan’s situation isn’t really a case of financial elder abuse and that his case should be handled by law, through the legal system. If you review the options that the legal system offers (stated above), it is fairly easy to see that it offers little, if any, hope or opportunity for Stan to prevail in this situation.

Stan’s retirement “plan” was simple. He wanted to spend his last days restoring Model A Fords, the kind he admired as a young man, but could never afford. Stan owns more than one shirt now, but his eyes tear up when he reflects about the moment when he had saved up enough money to buy two new shirts to have at one time. He gets up every morning, showers and shaves, checks his blood sugar, takes his insulin and other prescribed medications. He eats a little breakfast and feeds a group of cats before “going to work” at Fort Bascom Trading Post as a seller of used odds and ends, in an effort to make ends meet. For him, the weight of the world seems far heavier than it had 30, 40, 50 or 60 years ago. And he realizes he lacks strength. It seemed that Stan was headed on the same doomed path as the burn-gutted drugstore where he had once worked as a young man, only his suffering is lasting quite a bit longer. Stan is fast becoming the sun-dried hawk that fought for its life in the store display window until it could fight no longer, when no one either noticed or cared or tried to help it survive.

This is one of those little stories about the unknown underdog featured on television’s 60 Minutes, 20/20, 48 Hours or Nightline. How can an elderly, almost gone, and nearly forgotten man get noticed by those globally viewed and respected programs? Who can help him, and who cares for guys like this anyway? If you’re reading this article and have the answer, please let me know, before Stan claims his place beside his wife Janie who died almost 20 years ago.