Look Out For This Man

[NOTE: This post is very different than what you’ll typically read on this blog but it addresses something that is personally very important to me and something I will ask your assistance with at its conclusion. Thank you.]

The 10 year-old photograph (above) is of a man named Ken Walter (b.@1952). He spent much of his life in Michigan, then several years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He may be in Florida now, although I’m not certain; he could be just about anywhere.

Ken Walter represents himself as a contractor who specializes in remodeling kitchens but is, in reality, a fraud, a thief and an abuser of women, especially older women. Although he has had several victims, I have come to learn the facts of one case particularly well.

One elderly widow was approached by Mr. Walter, who was then her neighbor. After her husband passed away, Walter befriended her and, little by little, gained her trust. At first, Walter offered to pick up grocery items and do small tasks around her house. Eventually, he successfully pitched her the idea of a complete custom remodel of her kitchen, based on his self-stated vast experience designing and installing commercial kitchens in Michigan. For the price of a truly custom remodel, she got an ill-fitting installation of pre-made cabinets and off-brand appliances.

Not the nicest thing to do to an elderly widow but certainly not the worst part of this story.

The widow realized, of course, she hadn’t gotten what she thought she’d agreed to but she was both flattered by Walter’s personal attentions to her and mollified by his promises of great deals on future purchases of appliances and home works.

Eventually, they became closer friends and even went out socially and traveled together. She introduced him to people who could help with his business and he introduced her to his children, whom she hosted several times for meals at her home.

Walter habitually and purposefully waved recent copies of the financial press around, periodicals like Barron’s, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. He spoke about financial matters, something she had no personal experience in and didn’t feel particularly comfortable speaking about, with great confidence. Her trust in him continued to build, even in things unrelated to his stated areas of expertise.

The widow was then pretty well-fixed financially. By the time he passed away, her deceased husband had paid off their mortgage in full, had saved a fair amount in stocks and had a better-than-decent pension from 40 years of working for the same company.

Walter eventually convinced the widow the return she was getting from her stock portfolio was anemic relative to what he could generate for her. He manipulated, coerced and cajoled her into transferring her entire account, a lifetime of savings, into a fly-by-night self-service retail stock account he got himself signatory access to by telling this widow he needed it to execute trades on her behalf.

Walter also confused and flustered the widow by engineering a false crisis, so she hastily signed papers she didn’t truly understand; they turned out to be for a loan against the equity in her home, also including Walter’s signature. Because he’d obtained full access to the widow’s financial information, he took out several credit cards in her name and promptly ran up significant balances on them, which, of course, went unpaid.

Unlike the widow, you likely know where this story is headed.

Before she knew what had happened, her stock portfolio was completely liquidated and, worse still, she lost substantial equity on her only remaining asset, her home. Her losses totaled well over $750,000, and her credit was ruined. She entered her 80s, not with the financial security planned for by her deceased husband, but with staggering debts and few assets.

Walter slipped away. The widow was so filled with personal embarrassment and shame, she would not talk to authorities about Walter, in fact, could scarcely bring herself to tell even her own family.

But this is a decision she deeply regrets today, because Walter was consequently allowed the freedom to potentially victimize others.

And this is why I’m asking for your help.

Will you please forward this post and Walter’s photographs (The photo below is more current.) as broadly and to as many people as you can? If trivialities like YouTube videos of dancing cats are seen by hundreds of millions, I believe we can certainly do as well for this more important purpose.

Mr. Walter should be found: (1) so he can be brought to justice, and (2) so he can be prevented from abusing more people. His photograph should be seen by as many people as possible so no more widows lose their life savings to this vile and cold-blooded thief.

Not Off the Hook

Yesterday, a Pennsylvania jury convicted former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts.

Over the past 12 months, since the Jerry Sandusky case came to broad public awareness, I’ve written 3 pieces about him, Penn State and sexual abuse:

  1. The first discusses Joe Paterno and Penn State.
  2. The second takes a look inside the PR machines that get built around these cases.
  3. The third puts the case into the broader context of the year’s PR disasters.

While I am gratified that this particular child molester has been convicted and may never be free to molest again, I think we should all be very cautious about feelings of relief. A great many people knew about Sandusky’s behavior for a very long time before his arrest and did nothing. In my professional experience with sexual abuse, which is considerable, this is often the case, despite what would-be Rambos assert afterward.

Most people will still go into denial, look away, or become impotent bystanders when faced with evidence of sexual abuse.

We can take some measure of comfort from Sandusky’s conviction, but it’s all for naught if we remain bystanders when evidence of abuse presents itself in our own lives.

Three Birthdays

The story may be apocryphal, but Ken Burns was supposed to have said that, to understand this country, one must understand three things: the Civil War, baseball and jazz. While I agree, I might suggest another trio of important keys to understanding the American character.

Three exemplary American institutions had recent birthdays. Two turned 75, the third turned 68. Together, they’ve shaped and reflected our nation’s identity.

The first is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is, as my friend Chris Forsyth recently reminded me, very American to look at the distance between two seemingly unlinkable points, then design and build a bridge between them. The bridge was, at the time it was first suggested, thought impossible to build. The Golden Gate Straight is long and naturally very deep. Contemporary bridge building techniques were unequal to it. The design was, therefore, necessarily revolutionary. It is also aesthetically revolutionary. And it has stood the test of time. It remains breathtaking. It is one of the great human constructions of all time, and is rightly an icon, not just of San Francisco, its home, but of the entire country.

The second institution celebrating its 75th birthday is the Sigmund Stern Grove concert series. For 75 years, the grove has hosted a series of extraordinary open-air concerts during the summer months. Always open to the public. Always free. The grove was purchased by a wealthy San Francisco family (They were relatives of Levi Strauss, of Levi’s jeans.) and given to the city to be held in trust and developed with the express purpose of providing a venue for the free entertainment of the city’s people in an open, natural environment. Through the Stern Grove concerts, many people have had their only opportunities to see symphonic music, grand opera, traditional American and world music. The grove is an example of those times in which business elites thought and gave to make their communities better, stronger and more hospitable to their cities’ working class.

The third institution might, more than any over event in the history of this country, be responsible for America’s democratization. Before the Second World War, about 10 percent of Americans, typically the monied elite, went to college. That changed when, 68 years ago, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, giving millions the access, for the first time, to higher education, and many many more people the expectation that higher education was accessible and affordable. Much of our political, social and economic progress as a nation is directly due to this one policy initiative.

Happy birthday to these three great American institutions. Time to make some more films, Ken.

Big Brains

Over an entrance gate at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania is the inscription ‘We will find a way, or we will make one;’ that’s the English translation of a quotation from the Roman general Hannibal, who would neither be turned back by enemies nor terrestrial boundaries in pursuit of his goals. [For all those Ivy League intellectual showoffs, however, the Penn inscription is actually in the original Latin ‘Inveniemus viam aut faciemus.’]

And so the inscription remains, since it inspired the great Benjamin Franklin, who founded the university in 1740, and it has continued to inspire work at the university since.

There’s a very big room in an engineering building on the University of Pennsylvania campus that houses an artifact. And, as is frequently the case with so many tools built for war, its most significant and lasting contributions have been toward peaceful purposes.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the 1930s and into the first years of the Second World War, it became very clear the military desperately needed more of what would now be called computing power to better complete the increasingly complex tasks of using even the contemporary technology of war.

To illustrate the importance and challenge of accurate calculations in wartime, just imagine, if you will, the number of computations it would take to fire a weapon at a target. Now, imagine how many it would take if the target were moving. Imagine if the weapon itself was moving. Imagine if the motion of both weapon and target were irregular. A concrete example? One ship firing at another, both making evasive movements in a rough ocean with lots of wind.

So, in response to these sorts of challenges, military engineers built what is widely thought of today as the world’s first super-computer, ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer].

The machine itself is huge; it literally takes up every inch of a very large room about the size of a fair-scale lecture hall. ENIAC was programmed by physically connecting cables between ports in the machine’s exterior structure. Programmers rolled heavy rubberized cables on large wheeled carts around the room and plugged them in as directed by sheets on a clipboard.  New problem? Better give it a little time. New sheet, new alignment of cables.

Still, ENIAC was thought of as a marvel, as it was a huge improvement over what preceded it. Many subsequent calculating machines followed ENIAC, each with greater capacities and higher levels of computing power. Before long, there were ‘supercomputers’ developed at other American universities, and some in several other countries as well. A contemporary forecast by a highly regarded engineer supposed that, one day, there might be a powerful computer in nearly every country on the globe.

That’s one computer per country; this brave forecast was just slightly under the actual global penetration of computers, which currently stands just under 2 billion.

I guess, though, we can’t be too hard on the original forecaster. Economic, industrial and technical conditions have changed just that radically since the late 1940s. Even your phone, much less your computer, is faster, easier to obtain and use, has more computing power and capacity than ENIAC did, and all at a fraction of the cost.

This distance between prediction and reality is nothing new, of course. As our societies continue to progress and evolve, as we push forward with new things, both found and made, we will continue to outstrip projections of those who must live in the hard and limited reality of the present day.

Notes on the First Day of Summer

The morning didn’t start auspiciously. Another driver, distracted by a brilliantly beautiful person running down Dolores, turned in front of me with neither look nor signal. I swerved to avoid him but nearly took out a streetsign to do it. When I’m behind the wheel, my spouse calls me Mario (after racing legend Mario Andretti) for a reason.

Disaster averted, I took my canine pal, DeeDee, to Fort Funston, built in the late 1930s as an artillery battery to protect San Francisco Bay from Japanese invasion, now a dog park and hang glider takeoff spot. It’s one of the few safe places the city’s dog owners can let their dogs run offleash and free, and a wonderful place to enjoy spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. [Great ocean views were once critical, I understand, for artillery batteries.]

Not a cloud in the sky, the sun was warm, the breeze off the Pacific refreshing. A glorious first day of summer, the so-called longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

We, my spouse and I, once visited the Orkneys, islands north of Scotland, during the summer. Even after midnight, it never got truly dark. As I waxed poetic about the islands’ stunning beauty, a native reminded me that, 6 months from then, in the dead of winter, it would never be truly light; the sun doesn’t really rise, the place stays in perpetual twilight.

Yeah, thanks anyway. I believe I’ll just stay right where I am, closer to the Equator.

Catch

It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny early evening, so my son and I grabbed our mitts and ran to the nearby park for a catch. For those readers unfamiliar, having a catch is a generations-old ritual of American life; at its simplest level, it is the activity of throwing a baseball back and forth between two people.

If you’ve seen the film ‘Field of Dreams,’ you may have a sense of the importance of this particular ritual to parent-child, (still primarily father-son) relations and bonding in our culture. Having a catch provides both physical proximity and mental space, which allows for conversation about issues that might never get addressed in the closer and more intimate setting of, say, the dining table.

On early summer evenings, like this one, my own dad would get home from work and we’d still have at least an hour of light left for a catch at the playground across the street. He’d like moving around after being at his desk all day but he’d also always take the chance for a cigar, which he wasn’t allowed at home.

Me? I don’t smoke, I just throw. Having a catch is enjoyable and restorative enough for me without any chemical enhancements.

You can’t simultaneously have a catch and think about the action of throwing. Think about throwing and, it never fails, the ball goes awry. Let the ball go freely from your hand, and all is well. Just one of the many paradoxes of baseball.

We, my son and I, have gotten to the point where his throws are harder than mine. Despite his lean frame, he’s got a cannon for an arm and his throws pop the leather of my glove with a snap that echoes around the park. Sounds great. His growing arm strength and control feels great to me too, on so many levels.

Greece Decides

A sigh, but not one entirely of relief.

The much-anticipated return to the polls happened in Greece this past weekend, and the global game of economic chicken is over for the moment.

The result of the nation’s second election in a little over a month was a very narrow victory for one of Greece’s traditional political parties, the conservative and pro-bailout/EURO/austerity New Democracy (ND) party. Assuming ND can successfully form a government, this would seem to indicate that Greece will, for now, stay within the boundaries of a heavy-handed, German-dictated austerity agreement and stay within the Eurozone.

Yesterday’s election gives hope to many, including those working in the world’s financial markets, and rips it cleanly and painfully away from others, like ordinary working Greeks, who can now fully expect to pay for their misplaced faith in international establishments, corporate elites and even their own elected leaders.

One important lesson I hope my beloved Greek brothers and sisters have learned through this recent experience: political leaders, whether democratically elected or not, cannot be trusted to fulfill their campaign promises.  I recognize that I am a virtually complete cynic when it comes to this, but my own considerable experience amply supports this conclusion.

The Greek people, that is to say, the real, hard-working, family-oriented, open-hearted Greek people, who were sold blue-sky and puffy-cloud, joy-everlasting, land-of-milk-and-honey fictions about their participation in the Eurozone have been handed the bill for a banquet they were never invited to attend and, for which, their succeeding generations will be left to slave.

So, for now, the world has escaped the feared tipping over of the first Eurozone domino. I’d say it’s scant cause for celebration.