He Sold Staples

Dan Smith

IN SPRING 1984, WHEN I was age 32, we purchased a little ranch house in need of tender loving care. That’s why I found myself in a musty crawlspace, removing clutter and installing vapor barriers.

I heard a booming voice from above. It wasn’t God telling me I should run for president. Instead, it was my new neighbor Ken. I came to the surface, dusted myself off and went inside the house.

Standing there was a 47-year-old, six-foot two-inch bald guy with a jet-black beard, holding a whiskey and coke in each hand, one for him and one for his new neighbor. I’m sure it was five o’clock somewhere. To say that Ken was gregarious would be an understatement.

We covered all the normal topics that new neighbors would. Ken was excited to learn I sold his favorite brand of beer. Initially, I wasn’t terribly impressed by Ken’s line of work. He sold staples. Still, we became fast friends.

Ken’s life story turned out to be one of rags to riches, and then back to rags. In the end, he was still able to find happiness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You can imagine that, with his outgoing personality, Ken was a good sales rep, and his territory expanded exponentially. But then the staples manufacturer carved up his route, which cut into Ken’s commission and prompted him to quit.

That was when Ken and his friend Bob, who’d been his auto mechanic, opened up a business together—selling staples. Understand that these were industrial staples, along with staple guns, air compressors, nails, nail guns and other industrial supplies. Ken did the selling and Bob ran the shop. They survived a lawsuit from Ken’s former employer, and each enjoyed a comfortable six-figure income.

Ken initially reminded me of a Millionaire Next Door. His house was of a modest size and his car was a small hunk of Detroit steel. But I think success eventually went to his head.

Ken built an addition that doubled the size of his house, which had previously been no bigger than mine. The huge master bedroom had a hot tub in the middle of the room. The new family room opened onto a large deck and a custom designed pool. We had some insanely fun parties around that pool. Neighbors were always welcome.

Ken’s compact station wagon was traded for a beautiful full-size van that had undergone a custom conversion, while his wife’s daily drive was a Corvette. Ken was generous. Lending money to friends and family in need was pretty common, and not much was ever repaid. Ken’s wife had been previously married, and he spent thousands trying to help his wife’s daughter from her first marriage.

In 1994, at age 57, Ken sold his share of the business, and moved to his favorite city and frequent vacation spot, Las Vegas. I took time off work and drove their big moving truck to the new city. Ken and his spouse had a home built with a great view of the strip. They had the house professionally decorated, and installed a swimming pool that looked like it was right out of the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. They paid cash.

I needn’t tell HumbleDollar readers that retiring at age 57 often isn’t a good idea. Ken had invested the remaining business-sale proceeds in just one fund, Fidelity Magellan. This was a case of not knowing what you don’t know. Not only was his nest egg not diversified, but also Magellan’s glory days were coming to an end. Ken had also inherited a good chunk of a biotech company’s stock from his father.

Things were beginning to unravel. Ken’s attempt at starting a new business never struck lightning, like the staple business had. He also made some bad decisions, such as investing in speculative movie productions. He turned over the biotech stock to a stock broker, who then used it for some investment scheme that didn’t pan out. Ken and his wife decided their house wasn’t big enough, so they sold it at a loss and built a much larger home. Next came marital problems, and divorce took half of what was left. The second house was sold, again at a loss.

Ken liked younger women. His ex-wife was 17 years his junior, and the new women now entering his life were even younger. For a guy Ken’s age, these young ladies were an expensive habit. Soon, Ken was out of money, living solely on Social Security.

I often visited Ken and became concerned about his state of mind. Then something good finally happened. Ken had a wife before the one he’d just divorced. Ruthann was his high school sweetheart, and they’d married right after graduation. Ken’s little brother Guy had kept in contact with Ruthann, and put her and Ken in contact with one another.

Ruthann lived in Florida. She owned a mobile home and the lot it sat on. They visited each other a few times and things went well. Ken had given up drinking, along with younger women, and was truly a different man.

Ken soon packed up and moved to Florida. I first met Ruthann on the phone, when I called Ken on his birthday. I instantly realized that Ruthann had the same dynamic personality as Ken, but without any of Ken’s past vices. I would speak with Ken often and visit them every few years, and I’ve never seen a happier couple. Sadly, Ruthann died suddenly in 2018. Ken would tell everyone that the 10 years they spent reunited were the best of his life.

Ken died from prostate cancer last month at age 86. His wish was to be cremated, without any sort of memorial service. I traveled down to Florida with his brother Guy, who’s also a good friend of mine. Ken’s ex-wife Cathy and son Derek flew in from Las Vegas. The four of us, and a handful of Ken’s friends from the trailer park, met up a few times at the local coffee shop where Ken used to go every day. We shared stories about Ken, including my first ever encounter with the man.

Ken’s mobile home was overstuffed with things he or Ruthann had collected over the years, mostly things of little value. We managed to find family scrapbooks, and even his and Guy’s mother’s Bible, as well as photos of friends, including many of me and my first wife. Guy, Cathy, Derek and I each came away with some mementoes.

Ken didn’t even want an obituary published. Still, it just occurred to me that this is as close to one as it gets: Ken S. left this life on Dec. 4, 2023. Ken loved family, friends and life itself. Ken sold staples—lots of staples.

For 30 years, Dan Smith was a driver-salesman and local union representative, before building a successful income-tax practice in Toledo, Ohio. He retired in 2022. Dan has two beautiful daughters, two loving sons-in-law and seven grandchildren. He and Chris, the love of his life, have been together for two great decades and counting. Dan’s previous articles were Taxing Our Brains and Beer to Taxes.

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