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Back From the Brink

Stock market swindles and greedy CEOs brought these folks close to financial ruin. First they got angry. Then they got busy

Cora Lee Jckowski

— Photograph by Patrick Fraser

When energy giant Enron collapsed in a scandal of nonexistent profits and falsified accounting in 2002, Lois Black lost her job. Worse, the legal secretary at the company's Houston headquarters lost everything in her 401(k) retirement savings—almost $150,000. "I know, I know—it was dumb to put so much of my money into Enron stock," says Black, "but [CEO] Ken Lay sent us constant voice mails saying everything was great. We believed it."

Then 62, Black knew she didn't want another secretarial job. "I'd had my fill of lawyers younger than my kids walking right past the Xerox machine to ask me to copy a single sheet," she says. Yet her $18,000 severance—five months' salary—wouldn't go far, and she had only $50,000 in retirement savings. She applied for Social Security, but collecting before full retirement age meant a benefit of less than $1,000 a month. Black, who is divorced, needed a new source of income.

Betting that young girls would love elaborate tea parties as much as her granddaughter did, she launched Tea Parties To Go. She scoured thrift stores for clothing in tiny sizes so the partygoers could play dress-up. She found pintsize tables and chairs to set up at the birthday girl's home, which she'd decorate like a mini wedding reception. She placed ads in elementary-school directories. Total start-up cost: about $1,000.

The kids ate it up. Black grossed only $6,000 her first year (charging $250 a party) but, gradually, happy customers spread the word. By 2006 she was charging $400 and grossed $25,000.

Her retirement savings rose slowly from the $50,000 after Enron folded to $80,000 a year ago. The crash wiped away most of that gain, and the recession has cut her business by 30 percent. She's still saving, though, and isn't too worried. Debt-free and living well at 69, Black says her $260,000 home is her nest egg, then quickly adds, "I'm not retiring. I love what I do. I'd be happy doing it forever."


On an April day eight years ago, Cora Lee Jckowski's husband, Sonny, called her at the Sandy, Utah, middle school where she worked as assistant principal. He had some shocking news. Their friend and financial adviser, Gregg Simper, had died in a shooting accident.

"Oh, my God," she said in a flash of intuition. "It's not an accident. He's taken my money and killed himself."

Over the years Jckowski, now 60, had invested about $80,000 with Simper, buying annuities for retirement. But certain things hadn't felt right. A well-connected local figure who always seemed to be rushing to the golf course, Simper never showed her any paperwork and evaded questions about the annuities' growth. But she brushed aside her doubts. After all, he was a professional.

It was a costly mistake. In a suicide note Simper confessed to stealing $2 million from clients. For Jckowski, the betrayal took an emotional toll. "Even more than the money, the evilness of what Gregg did was the hardest thing to deal with," she says. "I considered Gregg a friend, and I trusted him."

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