Married life was great! Even though we did not have much money, we made do. We rented a small apartment. Our furniture consisted of a bed and two old buckets we turned upside down to use as chairs to sit on while we ate our meals, which Jean placed on an old worn-out card table. Over time, we accumulated more furniture when we had a good month. Jean would pack us a sack lunch to eat while we both worked at our small insurance agency. Sometimes she didn’t have time to make the sandwiches beforehand, so we used a letter opener to spread peanut butter on slices of bread she brought as we rushed out the door.
We lived on a budget of $800 per month, but one month, we only had enough money in the business to take out $500. Our rent was $350 per month, so Jean sacrificed to stretch the balance of the money until the next monthly commission payment. That month, we only had enough money to purchase a pound of hamburger, a chicken, some cheese, and beans, but we were happy.
Jean became pregnant right away, and our first precious little girl was born ten months after our wedding. The business flourished, and we were able to purchase our first home. This was during an economic crisis of stagflation, so our mortgage was at 18 percent interest. We loved our little old house and set about fixing it up.
One Saturday, we invited our secretary and her husband over for dinner at six o’clock. I was an ambitious hard worker who didn’t waste time, so I planned on laying a new floor in the kitchen before they arrived. I moved the stove out into the entryway early in the morning and started laying the floor. As most people know, home improvement projects always take more time than planned. As the afternoon wore on, Jean kindly mentioned several times that she didn’t think I had time to finish, and we should put the stove back so she could cook the meal she had planned. I would look up at the clock on the wall and say that we still had enough time.
Eventually, she put her foot down and insisted that I stop because our guests would arrive in half an hour. I pointed to the clock and said that we still had two and a half hours before they arrived. Jean smiled and informed me that the time on the clock was wrong. Sure enough, she was right, so I immediately rushed putting the tools and materials away and cleaning up, but before I could move the stove out of the entryway, our guests arrived. Boy, were they shocked to see a stove greeting them when I opened the front door! The husband was kind enough to help me move and reinstall the stove, and then we played board games while we waited for Jean’s dinner to cook. We all laughed about this experience for years, but more important, you get an idea of how gracious and patient Jean was with me.
One of our insurance clients had a solar company that was taking off as a result of the favorable tax credits the government offered at the time, and they suggested that I help sell their product. With the help of a friend I met in Ecuador as a fellow missionary, we devised a marketing plan to use accountants to help us sell the solar panels. We named our new corporation, Grant, Brent and Company and bought our first computer to help automate our marketing effort. The venture exploded, so we bought our next big computer. Realize that this was before IBM introduced personal computers with Microsoft DOS software. We paid $40,000 (over $120,000 in 2022 dollars) to buy a computer the size of a dishwasher with a great big forty megabit hard drive the size of a circular serving tray, four dumb screens, a dot matrix printer, and a letter-quality printer. Even though this equipment seems like a joke today, it was instrumental in helping us automate our business. Direct mail marketing to tax professionals became a breeze. We wrote dozens of standardized responses to frequently asked questions so we would simply check the boxes on our list that applied, and our secretary quickly printed out responsive letters. We ended up selling over $10 million ($30 million in 2022 dollars) of solar equipment that year.
Life was good. Jean was expecting again; we didn’t have money problems; Jean’s mother, who had been disabled by a stroke a few years earlier, lived with us; and I was teaching religion classes to teenagers every morning before their first period high school classes began.
Then Jean went into labor two months before her delivery date. The hospital was unable to stop the labor, and our first awesome son was born and rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit at San Diego’s Children’s Hospital. At that time, this was right at the point of gestation at which infants had a chance to survive a premature birth. It was devastating to watch little Jeff struggle to breathe. His chest would collapse with each breath as if there was nothing in it. His whole arm was as long as my little finger. But he was a fighter, and the nurses put a picture of a rabbit on roller skates on his incubator because he was progressing so fast. It still took several weeks before we were able to bring him home.
A few days after Jeff’s birth, I was visiting with the chief financial officer of the firm that produced and installed all the solar equipment we had sold. I was shocked when he mentioned that they had sold $40 million dollars’ worth of equipment. I was their insurance agent and major sales arm, so I knew approximately how much equipment they had produced, which was a lot less. My partner and I discussed this disturbing development and consulted legal counsel. We sent the solar company a letter mentioning our concern that they had not produced all the equipment they had sold and demanded that they deliver to us within ten days all the equipment purchased by our customers. The deadline came, and the solar company filed bankruptcy. I did not want to add to the stress of our son’s life-and-death struggle, so I chose to not yet tell Jean about this developing financial disaster.
Two weeks after our son’s premature birth, Jean’s mother died of heart failure. Our life was turned upside down in an instant. We didn’t know if our son would live, Jean’s mother was dead, and I didn’t feel comfortable telling my wife that not only was our financial security in jeopardy, but we also may have been involved in a large fraud.
After her mother’s funeral, I told Jean what was happening with the solar company. It was a great relief to feel her support and move forward as a team to deal with life’s challenges. Life is like riding waves. Sometimes you are up, and sometimes you are down. The key is to learn how to hang on and enjoy the ride. When you are down and feel all alone, it is good to remember that life is dynamic, and your situation will change. Even though going through such hard times seems unbearable, when we look back, we realize that those are the times we learned some of our most important life lessons.
The doctors warned us that if our son survived, he would probably have serious mental disabilities. As it turned out, he not only survived but is highly intelligent. He has become one of the youngest partners at a prestigious patent law firm. We have been blessed with five other children, each of whom is an equally amazing individual. The four owners of the solar company were convicted of felonies, including tax fraud for backdating contracts. Fortunately, my partner and I were able to show authorities that we returned and did not process backdated purchase orders received from our salesmen. I am so glad that we were honest and did not fall prey to the temptation to make a quick buck by turning a blind eye to deceit.
Unfortunately, the owners of the solar company didn’t initially realize that it would cost more to produce and install the solar panels they sold than they had planned. Instead of immediately stopping, they decided to try to fix the problem by selling more panels without manufacturing all of them in hopes of buying time so they could cut costs down the road. When anyone checked on the inventory, they swapped out the serial numbers to avoid discovery of the fraud. I knew these individuals quite well and believe that they did not start out planning to defraud people. But they had not learned the life lesson to stop digging when you are in a hole, so they found themselves in prison.