By Casey Gauntt
I left the shaft job and my new friends in Coalwood, West Virgnia in late August, 1968 and flew home to Chicago. Ten days later I was in Los Angeles starting my first semester at USC. The whirlwind began with fraternity rush. I gave a courtesy glance at the Phi Psi house, my dad’s fraternity at UCLA, a more serious look at the Phi Delts where my cousin John Hagestad was BMOC (big man on campus), and ended up pledging Delta Tau Delta—aka Delts— my brother’s house. Grover Cleveland Gauntt III was a senior and not active in rush or, more accurately, rushing me. My pledge nickname was “Big Grover” –my 6’ 3” to his 5’11”—only adding to his chagrin.
I regaled many with the stories of my summer in Coalwood and they seemed fascinated and slightly incredulous. I suppose I knew from the way I carried on about it that there was even more to the experience than I probably understood at the time. But that enthusiasm soon receded behind everything else that was going on—war raging in Vietnam, the country trying to heal from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Civil Rights riots and marches all over the country.
USC’s football team was dominant led by senior tailback O. J. Simpson who won the Heisman Trophy that year. In the swirl of the football games and fraternity-sorority parties one could almost forget USC was next to Watts and in the middle of a very bad, high crime, neighborhood. There were, however, sobering reminders. USC’s Alumni Club in Chicago was the second largest in the country, and thanks to the hard work of its members, including George Moody and my mother, a lot of kids like my brother and me came to SC from the Chicago area. One of them who entered SC with me was a very highly recruited swimmer from Barrington, right next door to my home town of Itasca. We met at a rush party at the Phi Delt house where he ended up pledging, and saw each other few times after that. One night in early October he was at the house and an active sent him to the parking lot to get something from his car. They found him a half hour later sprawled across the front seat of the car in a pool of blood. He’d been stabbed to death during what the police figured was an attempted robbery gone very badly.
In the early 1960s, Case Foundation was doing a lot of business in Central and South America and they formed a new company Case International de Panama, S.A. headquartered in Panama City. They teamed up with a Columbian, Mario Ospina, who ran the day to day operations. My dad got a piece of the company and oversaw the Case family’s interests. This was a dream come true for him. He loved Latin America, taught himself Spanish, and his study in our home in Itasca, Illinois was filled with Latin music and literature. My dad loved deep sea fishing and Mario and he frequently entertained clients on fishing junkets off the coast of Panama, Columbia and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
By 1968 my grandfather, Vern Case, retired full time from the business and Mario and my dad bought out his interests in Case Panama for cash and a long-term note. Now it was their own baby to grow and prosper with some local contractors and investors. Around this same time the Case family-Vern and Henrietta Case, by mother and her brother Stan— sold Chicago-based Case Foundation to Bernie Mullen, John O’Malley and some of the other Case executives. That sale, too, was structured as an earn-out’ where the family would get paid from future profits of the company. Although my dad wasn’t one of the sellers or buyers he shouldered responsibility for the transition and looked after the Case family’s interests in the sale.
My dad had been a student of the stock markets for many years. He’d spend hours in his study manually charting several stocks with his fancy mechanical pencils and rulers. In 1969, with the help and encouragement of a young guy who was also a member of the Chicago Athletic Club, my father bought a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade and began to dabble in commodities trading. He so wanted to create something of his own and, finally, wean himself from Case Foundation.
I came home to Itasca in the summer of 1969. My dad got me a job with Tishman Construction working on the nearly completed John Hancock Tower in downtown Chicago. At the time this one hundred story structure, known as “Big John,” was the tallest building in the world. My job involved walking the building floor by floor and preparing punch lists of all the things the subcontractors needed to fix (repaint this, missing receptacle plate here, door doesn’t close properly there). It was tedious, boring and I was despised by the subcontractors. I welcomed any diversion including the first time I experienced zero gravity.
Not only was it the tallest building, but Big John’s express elevator from the ground floor to the restaurant being built at the top was the fastest in the world. The restaurant was named The Top of John Hancock. We construction men had a better name—Tip of The Cock. One day in the elevator lobby I ran into Paul, another young Tishman employee. He said “Come on, I want to show you something really cool.” We got in the cab of the express elevator and began the ascent. I couldn’t believe how fast the cab accelerated—the ticking off of the floor numbers on the LED display above the cab’s doors became a blur. All of my weight was crushed into the heels of my boots. Somewhere around the 70th floor the elevator reached its maximum speed and Paul pried open the elevator doors with his hands tripping the automatic breaking system. The cab’s massive inertia carried us up another ten stories or so, the cable no longer wrapping around the drum at the top of the building. At the moment the cab reached its zenith and began its descent into free-fall, our feet lost contact with the floor and we literally floated for a second or two an inch above the cab’s tiled floor. At that moment, Paul and I were commanders of our own space capsule just like the one Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo 11 astronauts had taken to the moon in July of 1969.
The exhilaration was instantly replaced by intense fear—mine—as the cab plummeted to earth. I quickly assessed the options. What if the cable snaps and we plummet all the way to the bottom? What if it doesn’t snap after we reach the bottom of the ten floors we floated up—same result, instant death upon impact. We’re fucked!! I screamed. Paul, the seasoned veteran, smiled. Apparently there was plenty of elasticity in the cable and as we reached and descended beyond the point where the doors were pried open it stretched like a bungee cord and we went down a few more floors before we were yanked back up. It went on like this— down and up—four or five times until we finally came to rest. That was by far and away the most exhilarating experience I have ever had in my life. I have bungee-jumped in New Zealand—it’s not even a close second.
Case Foundation put in the caisson foundations for Big John in 1966. This was a mammoth job. Fifty seven of the 239 ten foot diameter caissons went down an incredible two hundred fee deep. The foundations were designed to leave in place the casings—the steel tubes inserted into the holes while the concrete is poured.
Generally the casings are pulled before the concrete hardens. However, at some point in the middle of the job somebody made the decision to start pulling the casings—maybe to save money. Shortly after the steel infrastructure for the building was coming out of the ground, problems surfaced with the foundation system. There were costly delays on the job while some of the caissons were redone. By the summer of 1969, litigation had been threatened against Case by the owner/developer of the project. I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the problem, but I sensed my father was worried about it. As it turned out, and I will write about in a soon-to-come story, it was a big deal — so big the Chicago Tribune was still publishing stories about it 15 years later in 1985 [ City's Stately 'Big John' Gets Off To A Tipsy Start ]
I’d usually take the train from Itasca into Chicago’s Union Station and then grab a bus to the John Hancock building. Sometimes my dad would drive me if he was going downtown. During one of our drives he told me “Casey, don’t even think about getting into the construction business. It’s too volatile and unpredictable. It’s a boom—bust business that will only frustrate you.” I’d been working in the construction business the past nine summers—eight for Case— it was the only business I knew, and I had always assumed after college I’d go to work for my grandfather and dad and help build the company. Great—what was I going to do now?
Flush with $1,830 in my pocket from my toils in Big John’s stairwells and elevators, I headed back to USC for my sophomore year. My brother spent his summer with the U.S. Postal Service before heading off to the prestigious Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia for his first year of a two year MBA program. Finally, one of us was going to an Ivy League school which, hopefully, pleased our father.
In April of 1970, U.S. forces invaded Cambodia, and America erupted. Student protests and riots began immediately and simultaneously on every college campus with the exception of the military academies. It was like spontaneous combustion. The opposition to the war had been growing and becoming more vocal and embolden over the previous several months. The opening of a new front against another country meant more boys would be drafted, killed or injured, and the war was far from over. That was the spark that ignited the whole thing. Two weeks later the Ohio National Guard was called onto the Kent State campus to suppress a student demonstration. The guardsmen opened fire on the students and killed four of them.
“Four dead in O-hi-o,” the chilling lyric in Neil Young’s anthem of the times “Ohio,” memorialized the tragedy. The volcano blew and things quickly got out of control. Students and professors across the country clashed with police and National Guard. There was a march and demonstration by hundreds of thousands of young people in Washington D.C. My brother was one of them.
Within a week there were so many classes cancelled due to professor and student absences, USC’s administration decided to give students the option of taking their midterm grades and “working for peace” in lieu of completing the term. I had straight A’s on my midterms and chose peace. All college sports were cancelled and several of us dedicated ourselves to playing over-the-line on SC’s baseball field several hours each day. It was eerily quiet on campus. I was neither aligned with the protesters nor blood-thirsty hawks. Our parents strongly encouraged us to believe that the folks running the show in D.C. were the most experienced in these things and, for the good of the country, we must abide by their decisions. I didn’t completely buy-in to that dogma, and I still harbored latent anxiety from the Cuban Missile Crisis as to whether our fathers in Washington really knew what was best. [ You might enjoy: Fallout Shelter, My Ass ] I didn’t’ feel that strongly one way or another about it to move me to march with the protesters or enlist in the Army. My brother was a different story.
I came home to Itasca for the summer. It would be my last one there. My mother had a friend from the Midwest Alumni Club who was the President of Baxter Labs, a big publicly held company that made medical instruments and supplies, headquartered in Mundelein, about fifteen miles north of Itasca. I went to work for his outfit as an assistant inventory control analyst in a group of about fifty that figured out whether the warehouse in Pascagoola had too few or too many tongue depressors relative to the pace of sales in that particular region. I got my first dose of big corporate ladders and office politics and didn’t like it. I found the entire experience depressing. It was like the popular television show “The Office,” only not funny—it was all too pathetically real.
Grover also came home that summer from Wharton. He was, in his words, ‘transformed.’ After our glorious trip to Panama for Christmas 1969, he boarded a plane for Philadelphia donned in a Chemise Lacoste polo shirt, penny loafers and a cashmere sweater wrapped around his shoulders and a crew-cut hair style. He returned six months later with hair below his shoulders, a full beard, bell-bottoms, tie-dyed Jimmi Hendrix t-shirt and beads. He was vociferously opposed to the War and all things establishment. He was reading and quoting the writings of Buddha, but that wasn’t new— Grover had been a student of Eastern religions and philosophy since high school. He spent hours in our back yard sitting in a lotus position and contemplating the beauty of a blade of grass. Our mother was worried about him, and our father was annoyed and made no attempt to hide his displeasure. “Are you using drugs?” Grover denied it, but I knew that wasn’t true. His girlfriend of two years at USC had started going out with another guy, which may not have been so bad if he wasn’t our cousin, John, the Phi Delt. It was a very difficult summer for and with my brother.
I drove back to SC in my dad’s 1968 beige Cadillac Sedan DeVille which he had given me. That was our deal—we couldn’t have a car in college until we were juniors.
Grover got an Austin Healey and sold it when he graduated from SC. He drove back to Philadelphia in our mother’s yellow 1966 Ford Galaxy 500. He left a letter addressed to us—mostly meant for our dad—apologizing for the summer’s acrimony and expressing his love and his gratitude for the love and support of our family. “It takes a lot of love and understanding to watch a child grow up and go through stages of change and experimentation,” he wrote. “The coming year will be great for all of us.” My brother is a lot of things, but he is not psychic.
My dad bought a yellow Volkswagen Bug to replace the Caddy he’d given me. It was obvious that he was extremely stressed and out of sorts that summer, and it had very little to do with my brother’s ‘transformation.’ It was business related and, as with other troubles in his life, he didn’t talk about it.
Once again my mother, bless her heart, keeps everything including a file containing some things my father wrote in December 1970. A year after Jimmy died, I took that file out of a box of my mother’s things we store in our attic and read it for the first time. My mother had shown it to me perhaps twenty years earlier, but I barely glanced at it. I couldn’t read it then—I didn’t want to know—I was afraid. I recently read an Eckhart Tolle book and embraced one of his mantras, I will be fearless in my life. I mean, really—at this point what could I possibly be afraid of? I’d already lived my worst nightmare–twice.
I read my father’s file several times. I also sat down with my mother and her brother, my uncle Stan, and talked with them at length about “What happened?”
Shortly after the sale of Case Foundation to the employees the company was beset with problems. The country was in the middle of a recession and the construction business was in another “bust” phase. The company was indebted to a couple of banks for around $400,000 and they were putting the squeeze on. In addition to the heavily depreciated equipment, the company’s major assets were a hundred acre farm across the street worth about $350,000, $60,000 of land in Detroit and our house in Itasca. I had not realized until I read the file that we didn’t own our own home. $400,000 of debt might not seem like a lot of money today, but here’s some perspective. Our—I mean the company’s—four bedroom house in Itasca with an acre of land on a private golf course was worth maybe $25,000. More importantly, $400,000 was a lot of debt for the company with no readily available means to pay it back. If the banks foreclosed Case was out of business and the Case family would get ‘goose-egg’—zero—from the sale of the company. My dad had lined up a buyer for the farm, but the sale fell through.
Yet this all paled in the shadow of the John Hancock building. By the summer of 1970 the original developer had lost the project to his lenders and filed a massive lawsuit against the company, the Case family and my father seeking damages in excess of $160 million.
Things in Panama were no better. In October of 1968, shortly after my dad and Mario bought Vern’s interests in Case International, there was a military coup in Panama led by Brigadier General Omar Torrijos. Manual Noriega, who would become dictator several years later, was at that time a young officer under General Torrijos. Panama became increasingly unstable politically and risky for business. My father took a trip to Panama in September of 1970. One of their projects was the development of a hospital clinic in Panama City and there were some “problems” with the permits. My father drew $17,000 of cash from the company account and handed it over to one their partners in the deal, who in turn gave it to a government official. “Problem” solved; just like doing business in Chicago. Before my dad returned home, Mario and he drew another $20,000 from Case International for my dad to invest in corn and silver commodities and make some money to cover their financial problems.
My parents and Laura came to California in late November. We spent Thanksgiving Day in Springville with my mother’s folks, Vern and Henrietta, and then drove back down to Los Angeles the next day. My dad was quiet and looked exhausted. That Friday my sister and I went to the USC-Notre Dame game at the Coliseum. Despite Joe Theisman’s monster game for the Fighting Irish throwing for a still-standing school record 526 passing yards, the Trojans prevailed 38-28 and accounted for the only blemish on Notre Dame’s otherwise perfect season. While the Trojans rained on the Irish’ parade, the LA skies poured down mightily on the fans with a torrential rain storm which lasted the entire game. Laura and I got soaked. After the game, I drove us to nearby Hancock Park where our parents were attending a party with several of their old friends from college. I got lost—typical—and by the time we arrived the party was in full swing. My sister recently shared with me her remembrance of what happened next.
“As we entered the house, soaking wet, Dad was standing by the door ready to leave, although the party was still going strong. I sat down, you stood next to him, and he said to you ‘You can tell me to dig a trench from here to there, and I could do that. But I don’t know a way out of the problems I have now.’ Of course that isn’t a direct quote, but it was something like that.”
I remember the football game, the rain, the win, and the trouble finding the house when we drove back. I remember my mother telling me Dad had not had anything to drink for a long time. Because of all the business problems he was afraid drinking might become an issue for him. I did not remember my father saying any words like that to me. Shortly after they returned to Chicago, my dad went back to Panama. On December 13, 1970 he made this handwritten note:
“The Baird & Warner time [his commodities trading] was not enjoyable. I realized that we were not going to sell the Myers farm (our 100 acres)- I felt I had to earn some money to pay-off the Beverly Bank—I had to do it personally because Case Foundation couldn’t. Also, I thought the price of silver was going up. I now realize what a con game gold, silver, platinum and palladium are. I am not a good trader—some where I miss it. I’m not disciplined enough-nor shrewd or quick enough. At first I thought I was good—I lost money from the first, but I had confidence that I’d win. I was influenced to think that money was going to get tighter and because of inflation, silver would increase in price. So I took a (too) large a position in a bull spread and silver broke down and by October 1 I was wiped out. I was in shock. I had lost $50,000 in a couple of days and faced with a lower market which would narrow the spread more, I shorted the market and figure I lost another $20,000 in the next two days as silver advanced. I still though (desperation)……….”
End of his writing. The last two lines were written with a feint, unsteady hand.
On December 15, he made a handwritten list of his personal assets and liabilities and his income for 1970—$55,336.47. On December 18 he neatly wrote a four page detailed summary of several outstanding matters involving the businesses and the various solutions he had attempted. He mentioned the $20,000 that Mario and he had pulled from the Case International account in September to be invested in silver. “I was trying to find a way to pay off the banks.”
The last sheet of his notes was dated “December 19, 1970-Saturday, Panama” and included a rough balance sheet for Case Foundation listing assets of $600,000 and liabilities of $612,000. At the bottom of the page he wrote and underlined “Washout.”
A flash of guilt hit me in the stomach. At some point during my sophomore year 1969-1970 I wrote a paper for a macroeconomics class about the silver market and I shared it with my dad. I, too, concluded the price of silver would go up in the long run because of an anticipated shortage of supply. I was so convinced I made my first stock purchase— ten shares of Hecla Mining Company, the largest domestic miner of silver. Did I ‘influence’ his thinking on the silver market? I will never sell those shares.
I flew back home from USC for Christmas vacation on December 21, 1970. My sister Laura and my mother were snuggled in our house in Itasca. My brother would be flying in from Philadelphia the next day. That night Laura and Mom were decorating the Christmas tree in front of the large living room window. I was out with some buddies from high school. Laura was very happy that it was beginning to snow. They both saw a yellow VW come around the corner onto Greenview Rd. and slow down in front of the house. The car did not stop and drove on by. Neither of them said anything. Laura thought to herself “Is it him? How could it be; he’s not coming home from Panama until tomorrow.”
The next morning Barb went to the Itasca Bank where she’d been working part time. I was still sleeping. Around ten a.m. Laura got in bed with me. She was shaking and crying. Our mother was leaning against the door of my bedroom, crying. Choking back her sobs she told me what she had just told my sister: “Your father is dead. Virginia [his secretary] found him in the bathroom next to his office when she got to work this morning. The police say he shot himself.”
Laura had awoken around nine. She made herself some breakfast and had turned on the television which had been moved upstairs from the basement. She heard a key go in the lock of the back door which connected the kitchen and the garage. She first saw our mother, ashen faced, and behind her were Virginia and two Du Page County police detectives. The three of them had gone to the Bank to deliver our mother the news. Laura and I hugged and cried together for awhile, and then I got out of bed, threw on some clothes and went into the living room. My mother was on the couch seated between the detectives. Virginia was standing helplessly nearby. One of the detectives repeated what they told our mother at the Bank. “Mr. Gauntt was found dead this morning at his office in Keeneyville. He had been shot in the head. There was a handgun next to him. We believe the gunshot was self-inflicted and our preliminary investigation indicates it was a suicide. Of course there will be a formal Coroner’s investigation within the next couple of days and you will be notified of the time and place should you choose to attend. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
It was 10:30 in the morning, a Tuesday, December 22, 1970. The steel gray sky had darkened and a light snow began to fall once more. I felt a numbness—shock—utter bewilderment— pain that I can’t begin to describe. The floor was disintegrating beneath our feet and we were falling. This time there was no cable attached. This was ground zero and we knew in our guts that our lives were shattered and drastically changed forever—yet we had no ability at that moment to comprehend the vastness and emptiness of it all. “Why?” we kept asking.
It was too late to call my brother. He was already on his way to the airport to fly home—pre-cell phones. My mother began to make “the calls”—those dreaded calls to her folks, her brother, my dad’s two sisters, close friends and business associates. Later that afternoon my friend and neighbor, Carter Nottke, drove me to O’Hare Airport to pick up my brother. I spotted him on the curb in front of baggage claim, waving and smiling at us. I got out of the car and as we hugged I spoke into his ear “G.G. I’ve got some bad news.”
It was 4:30 p.m., the snowfall had become much heavier and it was already dark. Very dark.