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Front Page » April 10, 2007 » Opinion » Sometimes it hurts to be a good person
Published 3,103 days ago

Sometimes it hurts to be a good person

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Most of us know that when we contribute something to an organization, help a neighbor in need or volunteer our time, that we are giving something up. Usually it is very worthwhile, and we do get something for our effort in terms of personal satisfaction.

But sometimes when we help someone we hardly know or don't know, through a tough situation, it can be downright painful. And sometimes the result is even unexpected.

Last week a man driving through Spanish Fork Canyon saw a truck that had gone off the road and two men standing by it. He noticed they were bruised and battered and asked if he could help. They told him there was a third person in their vehicle that they could not get out and he went down to the disabled truck to see if he could extract the person, and found no one in the cab. As he looked up, he saw his truck pulling away with the two men he had talked to inside. They had distracted him so they could steal his truck.

The story ended well for the good samaritan because before the thieves could get very far, the police had pulled them over and arrested them for auto theft.

When I saw this story, it brought back memories of things I have done for people over the years, and either been burned by it or nearly burned. I think we all have those stories, but most of the time they are not as dramatic as what happened in Spanish Fork Canyon.

The memory that comes back the strongest was when I helped a man who was down and out and he almost took $1200 from me. It was during the early 1980's. The economy in Salt Lake wasn't very good, Kennecott had just announced they were shutting down for a couple of years to revamp their operations and the place where I worked was overwhelmed with employment applications.

In the middle of this recession, the governor got the legislature to approved some money for a "work program" in the public sector for those that were out of work. At the time I was working as a supervisor for a school district, and we got a piece of that money to hire people to do various kinds of things around schools. Tied to the money was a referral program that was administered through the state and one morning about six guys showed up on the steps of my office. We still had to decide to "hire" them, but they were there because of their problems with employment. As I talked with each of them I assigned them to different campus' and various supervisors in the district. While doing those interviews, there was one man in particular that I liked and thought could be a real asset to our department. I even thought maybe he could eventually become a regular employee some day. I can't remember his name, but for the sake of convenience let's call him "Jack Smith."

I sent Jack out with one of my assistants, who after a few days of being around him, gave the new hire glowing references. He worked hard, got along well with people, paid attention to what he was told and came to work every day. The only problem he had is that he didn't have any kind of transportation and I had him assigned to a site where public bus service wasn't easy to come by.

A month into the program he came to see me one afternoon. He told me he had found a car that he could afford the payments on, but that he couldn't get it because he needed a co-signer. Being from out of state (Detroit, Mich.) he said he had no one to vouch for him. Being young, cocky and stupid I volunteered. It was only for $1200, so I told him I would go to my credit union, sign for the vehicle and let him pay it back over the next few months. On the way we talked about his family (who were still in Michigan), his life and his expectations. He said he was excited to stay on with us and wanted to make a career here. I thought I had found a real gem in the rough.

After getting the money we went to one of those small car lots with the signs that broadcast their low prices and easy financing. It made me start to think; if it was such easy financing, how come he couldn't get a loan there?

Anyway, he drove away in the old black Ford with a big smile on his face. It made me feel pretty good.

That good feeling started to disappear the next morning.

"Jack didn't show up for work today," said my west side supervisor in an 8 a.m. phone call to my office. "I have no way to get in touch with him either, because he doesn't have a phone number listed."

My stomach turned over, but I thought that maybe he had just missed a day and couldn't come to work for some reason.

However, he also didn't show up the next day, nor the next, nor the next, nor the next. In fact he never did come back to work at the district. After a few days I tried to trace him down, but couldn't find him anywhere. Workforce Services said they didn't have an address for him, except the shelter in downtown Salt Lake.

I was waiting to see what would happen and I kept thinking about what might happen if he didn't make the payments on that car. As the days went on I realized that I would probably never see him again and that in a short while the credit union would be asking me for the money.

I went to the credit union to see what they could do, and because of the nature of the loan, his checks from the district were going directly into an account there. I told them about the situation and somehow the officer I talked with put a freeze on his account. Turned out a check had just been deposited and there was enough money in the account to take care of the entire cost of the vehicle. How they were able to latch onto that, I don't know how they did it, but I walked out feeling relieved.

About four months later I was sitting in my office one afternoon, and the phone rang, It was a police officer from Omaha, Neb.

"Do you know a Jack Smith," he asked me. "He is wanted in Nebraska for bilking employers out of money and we have a record here that his car, which has been impounded, has something to do with you."

I explained the situation.

"You were lucky because there have been a lot of people who didn't recover their money," said the officer. "Anyway the vehicle was found abandoned and no one knows where he is."

We hung up after a short discussion. I was depressed over my lack of ability to judge character. Jack had taught me a hard lesson.

Less than a month after that I got a phone call from Jack himself. He was back in Michigan and wanted to be sure I had not been burned on paying for the car.

"You treated me better than anyone ever has and I wanted to be sure you knew that," he said. I didn't say much, I just kept my rage controlled and asked exactly where he was. He then said he had to go and hung up.

That incident changed my view about helping people. After that I found myself checking out every charity case that came before me from kids selling candy bars for baseball teams to requests in the mail for money for saving the squirrels.

In the final analysis, particularly in spur of the moment situations, we just can't let logic get in our way. When people need help, like the incident in Spanish Fork Canyon, most of us can't ignore it.

But we can sure be on guard just the same.

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April 10, 2007
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