The Mount Vernon Memorial Park Liberty Bell
It’s hard to be in the cemetery business without getting your hands dirty every now and then.
My name is Foy Eldeen Bryant. I’m 62 years old. It’s March 4, 1975. I’m sitting in front of a slot machine at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas. Me, I don’t gamble. But my wife is sitting next to me — handle in hand — methodically dropping dimes into the slot. On my lap is a brown paper bag full of hundred dollar bills — $75 thousand in all.
This much money is not as conspicuous as you’d think. It weighs about a pound and a half. Hell, it could be a sack lunch for all anyone knows. I carry it in broad daylight from my hotel two blocks away, past the casino’s massive fountains. Eight years ago, an entrepreneur like myself tried to fly over those fountains on his motorcycle. If you’ve ever seen ABC’s Wide World of Sports, you know how that turned out.
I’m trying not to draw attention to myself. At six-four, 230 pounds, I can’t exactly blend into the woodwork. On the other hand, this is Las Vegas. I don’t think I could stand out if I tried. I’m here for the annual meeting of America’s cemetery owners. There’s not much cause for celebration in our industry. Every day on the job for us is the worst day of our customers’ lives. So you can only imagine how 2,000 guys who deal with mourners and stiffs the rest of the year let loose when they’re with their own kind for a few days. Whatever you have in mind, that’s not the half of it. I feel sorry for anyone who dies next week.
Most people in the cemetery business are a few generations in, and their pockets have deepened accordingly. Not me. I wasn’t born into the business, and I certainly wasn’t born into money. I start my career — if you can call it that — in the 1930s, picking cotton in my hometown of Elmer, Oklahoma, for fifty cents a day. When the soil dries up and blows west, so do I.
In November of 1967, Robert Craig Knievel, a 29-year-old aspiring daredevil, is in Las Vegas to attend a boxing match. He sees the fountains of Caesar’s Palace, and he knows — by hook or by crook — he’s going to jump them on his motorcycle. All he has is a fire in his belly and the insatiable desire to be somebody. And that’s all he needs.
When I get to California, I do what I have to do. I drive a truck. I cut trees. I work as a roughneck in the oilfields.
After 20 years of working with my back, it’s time to start working with my brain. I move to Sacramento with my wife Lorraine and our three children, ages three, five and ten. Lorraine sets about designing our dream house. When I land a job in sales, I discover I have a certain knack for persuasion. Compared to the cotton fields and the oilfields, this isn’t working at all. I sell insurance. I sell securities. I sell graves. I quickly learn the best salesmen aren’t tricking people into buying things they don’t need. The best salesmen make their customers’ lives better. In selling cemetery plots, I have found my calling. I take great satisfaction in helping a family through its time of greatest trial. To provide a dignified burial at a well-kept cemetery for a decent price — that becomes my Caesar’s Palace fountains. I haven’t got the money or the experience or the connections, but I can see my future as clear as day — I’m going to own my own cemetery.
Robert Knievel adopts the nickname Evel, changing the spelling in order to sound dangerous without actually being dangerous. My lawyer would call that plausible deniability. He forms a company, Evel Knievel Enterprises. Caesar’s CEO Jay Sarno fields phone calls on three occasions from the company’s lawyers attempting to secure permission to stage the stunt. One of them accuses him of trying to profit off Knievel’s name before inking a deal. Sarno also gets calls from ABC Sports and Sports Illustrated looking for comments on the crazy man plotting to jump his fountains on a motorcycle. At this point, Evel Knievel Enterprises doesn’t have business cards, let alone lawyers. Knievel himself had made all the calls, impersonating the lawyers and the journalists — establishing himself as a modern-day P.T. Barnum in the making.
After ten years designing our dream house down to the finest details — from the parasol table in the swimming pool to the 15-and-a-half foot color lithograph of the Grand Tetons in the family room — Lorraine suddenly takes ill and is hospitalized in San Francisco. At age 37, the week construction is set to begin, she dies. One minute you’re a young family about to taste the American dream, the next, you’re a widower raising three children.
The Casino boss agrees to take a meeting with the daredevil. The jump is scheduled for New Year’s Eve, 1967.
Seven weeks after Lorraine dies, her dream home is nearly complete. The Sacramento Bee runs a full-page profile in their California Country Life insert, detailing the home’s novel features like indirect lighting behind the kitchen cabinets and a two-car covered carport. One photograph features my son in the pool, enjoying a cool drink under the parasol’s shade. Another shows the new Mrs. Foy Bryant serving me coffee in our combination kitchen and family room. Sometimes the dream takes unexpected turns.
Knievel tries and fails to get ABC Sports to air his jump live. Instead, they propose he film the stunt at his own expense. If the footage is spectacular, they’ll consider airing it at a later date.
In 1962 I find the perfect location for my cemetery: 121 acres in Fair Oaks, a growing suburb of Sacramento. I’ll name it Mount Vernon Memorial Park, after George Washington’s plantation. Why Mount Vernon? Because I love my county, that’s why. My cemetery will be non-denominational and all-American. I’m going to do things differently. You see, the best time to sell a grave is not when someone is dead or dying. That’s the worst time. The sales game is all about a knowledgable, compassionate salesman rationally making his case to a discerning consumer. When your wife has just died, or your father’s on life support, you’re as irrational and undiscerning as you’ll ever be in your life. It should be illegal to sell anything to anyone in such a state of mind. The best I could do was hope a grieving loved one called me before one of my less scrupulous competitors got to them.
Mount Vernon will sell graves the ethical way: when customers are thinking straight, perfectly healthy, and won’t need to use them any time soon. We’re not selling you a piece of land, we’re selling you peace of mind.
Knowing this is his one shot at jumpstarting a career as a professional daredevil, Evel Knievel uses his own money to hire a husband and wife film crew: John Derek, a TV producer he met at the fight earlier that year, and Linda Evans, an actress who decades later will earn fame for her work in front of the camera. The morning of the jump, Knievel walks through the front doors of Ceasar’s Palace in his red, white and blue, star-studded leather jumpsuit. He orders a shot of Wild Turkey, walks to a roulette table and bets his last $100 on red. All eyes are fixed on the man in the leather suit. His eyes are fixed on the wheel. The ball spins and spins and spins, staying aloft for what seems like a physically impossible amount of time. Finally, it slows, skips from number to number, and ultimately lands on black.
Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
Now all I need is financing. Let’s just say, despite my efforts to become part of the social scene, an Oakie from Elmer doesn’t have access to capital like the established Sacramento businessmen do. Since my days as a truck driver, I’ve known about the Teamsters Union pension fund. I heard they invest in less traditional business ventures. In 1962, after every bank in Sacramento turns me down, I make the acquaintance of a man who can help me secure a Teamsters loan — Jack Alan Greyson. I’d later find out he wasn’t the man as much as he was the man who knew the man who knew the man.
Nevertheless, in December of 1964, I receive my first Teamsters loan: $1.16 million at 6.5% interest annually over 15 years. As collateral, I pledge all the cemetery’s real property, rents, office equipment and accounts receivable from all lots sold or to be sold. In other words, I’m all in. I withdraw a total of $150 thousand in cash and pay Jack Greyson his brokerage fee over three installments.
Flanked by two showgirls, the daredevil walks out of the lobby of Ceaser’s Palace like a conquering emperor, mounts his 494-pound Triumph Bonneville T120, and warms up the crowd. A motorcycle jump is like the Kentucky Derby — the buildup is part of the sport.
Mount Vernon is in business, almost. Before I make my first loan payment, both Greyson and the man he knew — attorney Ben Cohen — are convicted on charges related to their work with the Teamsters, but unrelated to my loan. The man they both claimed to know, Teamsters president James Hoffa, held great sway over the pension fund and was at the height of his power, having just pulled off the biggest win in union history — essentially uniting all over-the-road truckers in North America under one agreement.
Greyson later would claim to have given $90 thousand of his brokerage fee to his father to give to Ben Cohen, with the understanding a portion of that would be paid to Hoffa. I couldn’t care less about how the Teamsters distribute their brokerage fees. If the boss gets a cut, well, that’s just capitalism for you. At this point, I’m more concerned the California Cemetery Board might deny me a license to operate Mount Vernon. Working against me are my competitors, who sit on the board and should have recused themselves. Joining them are County Planning Supervisor Ancil Hoffman, whose house is across the street from my location, and the Broadway-Hale department store, who would rather see my land as a residential development that would supply customers. After all, occupants of cemeteries have notoriously poor buying habits.
Nervous she’s about to witness a calamity, Jay Sarno’s secretary asks Kneivel about his preparation routine, seeking assurance from the magician that his trick is not as dangerous as it appears. In a matter-of-fact manner, more characteristic of an insurance salesman than a death-defier, he turns to her and says, “You don’t understand, Evelyn. This is a one-shot deal. You either make it or you don’t.”
After extended debate, my opposition capitulates, and Mount Vernon officially opens for business. Ancil Hoffman so realizes the error of his ways, when he dies in 1976, he’s buried at Mount Vernon. Now he can keep an eye on his house from the beyond.
Building any business out of whole cloth is tough. Starting a cemetery is a fool’s errand. But I’m just the kind of fool to pull it off.
Knievel’s most spectacular stunts to date were jumping over 12 cars in Post Falls, Idaho and two mountain lions and a pile of rattlesnakes in Moses Lake, Washington. As he surveys Caesar’s 18 fountains pumping 350 thousand gallons of water per minute — he knows he’s reached the big leagues.
Evel takes a few warm-up approaches, riding slowly to the top of the ramp, surveying the task ahead, and training 25 thousand sets of eyes on his every move.
A year after I open my gates, I’m in need of a cash infusion — $400 thousand. The Teamsters remain my best option. No more talking to a guy who knows a guy. I’m going to take my case to the man himself, James Hoffa. In July of 1965, I travel to Chicago to personally pitch the board of trustees of the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund. They’re investing in the future. I just need to paint them a clear picture of Mount Vernon’s future. I’m not selling a tangible commodity. I’m selling the dream of a better afterlife. It’s hard to quantify in a ledger, but easy to feel in your heart. When I stand before the board, I explain how my project is well underway. We have sold $150 thousand worth of cemetery lots in a bare wheat field. We have only five thousand square feet of lawn space. We have eight burials to date. Two suicides. And both of these purchased their plots before need, so I guess they couldn’t wait, they had to come out and be with us.
At a board meeting the next day, Hoffa puts his faith in Mount Vernon, declaring, “Now, Mister Chairman, I would like to make a motion that we concur in the request for a $400 thousand loan as stated concisely on the record for the concise purpose stated in the record.” The board approves his motion. Unanimously.
Evel Knievel barrels down the runway, popping a wheelie for good measure. He approaches the take-off ramp at 85 miles per hour. There’s no turning back now.
This time my brokerage fee is $50 thousand. The interest rate remains 6.5% over a 15-year term. Since Jack Greyson is otherwise occupied behind bars, his father Harvey visits me at Mount Vernon. I give him a tour of the place, cut a check, and go with him to the bank to cash it. My monthly loan payment is $18 thousand.
Now I’ve got cash in the bank and coffins in the ground. I’m set up for success. My two suicidal guests excepted, most of my customers pay well in advance of their expiration — what we in the business call pre-need. I put 60% of the money I collect from pre-need sales in the bank for when the need arises, and use the other 40% to manage and grow my business. Since we have both a cemetery and funeral hall, Mount Vernon is classified as a dual license operation under the authority of the California Cemetery Board, making my 60/40 split perfectly by-the-book. My competitors, with established businesses and regularly dying customers, operate under the authority of the California Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, which requires 100% of revenue from pre-need sales to go into so-called perpetual care funds. Hey, I don’t make the rules.
The idea of these perpetual care funds is sound. It provides the customer some level of assurance their final resting place will be as well-manicured 50 years after they’re buried as it is when they buy a plot.
A split second before he is to take flight, Kneivel feels the bike decelerate unexpectedly, but physics and gasoline and balls of steel carry him on nonetheless.
He’s done it. He’s airborne.
The man who bluffed his way into the stratosphere, the man who will soon be the most famous Montanan since Gary Cooper has just one more thing to do.
I continue selling reasonably priced burial plots to the good people of California for two years. I make my monthly payments to the Teamsters. Mount Vernon employs 85 people — more than any other business in Fair Oaks. In 1968 I decide it’s time to add a second location. I see the future of the cemetery business not as many owning one, but few owning many — and I’m going to be one of those few. I find an ideal location for my second Mount Vernon cemetery at the southeast corner of Calvine Road and Stockton Boulevard in Fair Oaks.
When you’ve made it — it’s exhilarating. You’re weightless. For a few seconds. And then you have to keep it going.
Once again, my competitors try to shut me down. They bring 25 people to a County Planning Commission meeting to voice their opposition to my doing business. Lawyers for East Lawn Southgate Cemetery make the uniquely un-American argument that since they’ve only sold 500 of their 5,000 available graves, they deserve to have no competition. Local funeral director Albert Greilich joins the chorus, afraid I’ll dig into his business. The whole lot of them are more concerned with preserving the status quo and keeping their slice of the pie than they are in the future of our industry. People ask why funerals are expensive. This is precisely why. The commission does not approve my second location, but I’m not done fighting yet.
The entire crowd holds their breath as Knievel approaches the landing ramp — a steep, crude structure of wooden boards, propped up by a van. It looks like he’s going to make it.
As if throttling the expansion of my business wasn’t enough, next, my competition tries to change the rules of the game. They claim a law passed in 1969 prevents me from spending any money from pre-need sales. I don’t operate under the authority of the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, so I’m under no obligation to follow their rules. Nevertheless, I try to play nice. LeRoy Perrin, the board’s own executive secretary, approves the continuation of my 40/60 split, so long as I change my corporate structure — which I do. Perrin, unfortunately, dies before he can put his approval in writing.
But they don’t stop trying to take me down. In 1972, they revoke my license until I give up my 60/40 split. To date, I’ve sold about $2 million in pre-need burials. So, you might think Mount Vernon has $1.2 million in the perpetual care fund. Well, everyone knows you can’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. Likewise, I don’t put money in that fund until a customer has completely paid up. Only about a third of our customers have paid in full. That brings my $2 million down to $666 thousand and change, of which $400 thousand would need to be in the perpetual care fund.
Well, the state uses a different calculator and claims my perpetual care fund is $1 million short.
Knievel’s back tire lands inches short, causing the handlebars to jerk, the front wheel to wobble, and gravity to do the rest. If you own a television set, what happens next is burned into your memory in slow, painful motion. Knievel’s ass slams down forcefully on the bike’s seat as both man and machine touch down. It’s not a pretty landing, though it looks like there’s a chance he could regain control. But before he can steady himself, Knievel’s body springs back up off the seat, and he lurches forward. Two-thirds lighter than the bike, the daredevil is propelled back into flight. The only question now is how badly this will all end.
There is a time to every purpose. And to every financial regulation, there is an accounting solution. Here’s what we do: the state can only claim I need to put 60% of sales into the perpetual fund care because I have contracts with my customers stating I’ve sold them a burial plot to use whenever their untimely time arrives. If I convert those contracts to something called debentures — certificates of indebtedness saying I owe them a funeral plot — then those transactions don’t fall under the purview of any laws dictating what I can and can not do with pre-need revenue. Most customers agree to the paperwork swop, and I reduce my perpetual care fund’s deficit to $48 thousand.
If all this is starting to sound confusing and boring — that’s precisely how the system is designed. Here’s a tip from a man sitting at a slot machine with a bag of cash in his lap: when it comes to contracts and accounting and state regulations — when you get to a point it’s so complicated and tedious your mind can’t help but drift away — that’s the time to pay very close attention. This is a most-effective and insidious sales tactic. The seller rattles through a bunch of technical jargon as if any dummy should know what they’re talking about. The buyer — not wanting to look like a dummy — nods along, signs on the dotted line, and pays for it later. This is how the entire system is designed. Take it from me — if they can’t sell it to you without confusing you, don’t buy it. Caveat fucking emptor.
I love a good fight as much as the next roughneck, but spending this much time and money defending myself isn’t good for business. By 1974, I suspend my efforts to open a second location. Mount Vernon is again long on potential and short on cash. Where I’m from, you dance with who brung ya, and so I return to the Teamsters. But pension fund trustees turn down my request for an additional loan, repeatedly. By this time, Mister Hoffa had been convicted on multiple charges, served time, and had his sentence commuted by President Nixon. Hoffa’s successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, is running the Teamsters and holds a chair on the board of trustees.
As any human would, when the asphalt comes rushing toward you at 60 miles an hour, Evel Kneivel extends his hands above his head to brace for impact. Instead, he somersaults and lands on his back like a sack of cement. His pelvis, spine and collarbone absorb the brunt of the impact. Cruelty, the Triumph stays upright and beats him to the finish line, rolling along like a riderless horse with its first taste of freedom. But gravity’s not yet done with the daredevil. The bush-league biker who will soon be a household name bounces back up and rolls six more times, fully conscious and working — with every cell in his body — to not die. Kneivel and the Triumph finally come to rest in the parking lot of the casino next door.
I make the acquaintance of Alvin Baron, an asset manager for the Teamsters pension fund. I host him at Mount Vernon in early December, and he’s impressed with the operation. Baron promises a $1.3 million loan if I can front him a portion of the $200 thousand brokerage fee. This time my interest rate will be 10%. Additionally, we renegotiate and extend my first two loan rates from 6.5 to 9%. My total monthly interest payment will now be $26 thousand. On December 12, Baron tells me the loan has been approved. Five days later, I withdraw $50 thousand in cash from Mount Vernon’s perpetual care fund. That’s not exactly by-the-book, but I won’t need it for long.
The next day I put the cash in a shoebox, wrap it with a bow and hand-deliver it to Baron in the lobby of the Hyatt House hotel in Burlingame. This is the first time I’ve paid a portion of the brokerage fee before funds are disbursed, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. There’s a lot of new blood at the Chicago headquarters, so I can only hope the Teamsters are as straight-shooting as they have been. Twelve days later, the first half-million hits my bank account, and I return the money I borrowed from perpetual care without jeopardizing anyone’s eternal resting place.
Fractured hip. Fractured wrist. Fractured ankle (2). Crushed femur. Crushed pelvis. Concussion. Knievel’s ego and his pride, however, are healthier than ever. None of his injuries are life-threatening, and his stock is rising sharply.
With my competitors off my back and cash in the bank, it’s time to get creative. I’ve doubled down on my bet to reinvent the cemetery business. I’ve taken care of my money problems for now, but if the gamble doesn’t pay off, those problems will only get bigger.
Knievel’s gamble pays off in spades. The two-person film crew captures all the drama of the jump, including Evans’ masterful tracking of the entire crash. Had she reacted like the majority of spectators in attendance: covering her eyes, gasping in horror and running away — this would be an entirely different story. ABC bought the rights to the footage, paying substantially more than if they had chosen to air the jump live.
Any cemetery can run an ad in the newspaper, but cemeteries rarely see their name in print outside the obituaries. What salesmen and showmen alike know, is if you can stage a stunt that holds the public interest, you don’t need to buy newspaper ads. They’ll run your story for free — in the section that people read. So, just in time for Christmas, 1974, Mount Vernon — as a way to thank the good people of Sacramento — offers free funerals for anyone who dies between the 21st and 31st of December. If death strikes, you have but to call. This sincere, from-the-heart offer covers the cost of what would otherwise be a $475 funeral. No strings attached. Not included are the $100 – $350 plot, tax (you know what they say about death and taxes), clergyman, or hearse service over 20 miles.
While it’s interesting when people die, it’s hard for cemeteries to get noticed any other time. Since most of my customers, God willing, won’t be joining us any time soon, I need to find other ways to attract attention. At our annual industry gathering, I hear how cemeteries in Florida and Minnesota are using a replica of the Liberty Bell as a promotional tool. The idea seems to be working well for them — but the idea was made for Mount Vernon.
The timing is perfect. With a renewed wave of patriotism sweeping the country ahead of next year’s Bicentennial celebration, there are a lot of things you can do with a Liberty Bell. I commission the famed Paccard Bell Foundry in France to make me a full-size, functional copy of the American treasure. It will be cast from a mold made in 1950 to the exacting standards of Arthur L. Bigelow, America’s foremost bellmaker. That mold produced the replica on the Capitol grounds in Sacramento and her counterparts across the country. The bell will be 78 percent copper, 22 percent tin, and 100 percent American, even if it does come from France.
So that brings us to today. Ceaser’s Palace. Paper bag. Seventy-five-thousand dollars. Mrs. Bryant at my side. Do I land? Do I crash? Do I live to hear the sound of my own Liberty Bell? I’m as curious as you are, so let’s get back to the story.
I’ve been down this road a time or two. This is the third of Baron’s three brokerage fee payments, and I’m hopeful this is the last time I’ll hand a man a bag of cash in a casino lobby. I see Baron approach from across the room. We exchange pleasantries, and without comment, I hand him the paper bag. Not missing a beat, he smiles politely at my wife, turns to me and says, “Thanks for the cigars. I’ve got to take the cigars and divide them among the trustees.” With that, he disappears through the casino, and the wife and I walk out the front door, past the fountains, and down the strip.
On October 2, 1975, my Liberty Bell arrives in San Francisco aboard the SS Danoli and is met with great fanfare, including a reporter from the Sacramento Bee. This story writes itself. I tell him we wanted to get involved in a patriotic project for the Bicentennial. I explain how we at Mount Vernon are planning a traveling display so school children throughout Sacramento and adjoining counties will have a chance to learn about the Liberty Bell and have the chance to ring it. There are many children who don’t have the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and will now have history come to them. I tell him the only difference between this replica and the original bell in Philadelphia is the absence of the crack.
The bell debuts at the Sacramento Home and Trade show and is admired by thousands of people. A few weeks later, students from the Alpha School in Elverta become some of the first to give the rope a sturdy tug and ring out what liberty means to them. Through the first half of the Bicentennial year, the bell will tour Northern California extensively, towed on a custom-made trailer, by one of my employees, on a Mount Vernon pickup truck. Ten thousand school children will hear its peal. When school lets out, the bell will join parades and county fairs.
On Independence Day, 1976, I’ll dedicate the bell at Mount Vernon. Twelve years later, it will become the most visited Liberty Bell in the world — ten times more popular than the original. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My Liberty Bell generates a lot of goodwill and attention, but it does not generate the revenue I hoped it would. By April of 1976, I’m unable to continue paying down my loan. Of the $2.86 million I’ve borrowed, I owe just shy of $2 million. Again, I travel to Teamsters headquarters in Chicago to plead my case. I’ve pledged as collateral my cemetery, all my business property, and all current and future revenue — so if I can’t pay, the Teamsters will own the whole lot of it.
I wear my finest suit and walk into the room with a salesman’s swagger — but I’m holding a weak hand. I feel like Evel Knievel as he’s tumbling — fully conscious — down the blacktop. I know this is going to end badly for me. The only question is: how badly?
If the Teamsters are going to own Mount Vernon, I want them to know exactly what they’re getting. I won’t be a sore loser. The peaceful transition of power is stitched into the fabric of our country. If we can’t renegotiate the terms of my loans, I want to set them up for success. I bring with me twelve years of financial ledgers with every penny accounted for: employee salaries, everyday expenses, pre-need sales, debentures, even the $50 thousand I borrowed for a few days.
For the last nine months, no one has seen hide nor hair of Mister Hoffa, who was mounting a campaign to reclaim the Teamsters presidency from his successor, Fitzsimmons. The mood is less friendly and more litigious than the last time I was here. As the trustees are weighing their options, Ronald J. Guild, a real estate attorney the Teamsters have brought in to review my case, runs his finger line-by-line through the pages of my ledger — starting with this month and moving backward through time. Suddenly he stops, pushes his reading glasses down along the ridge of his nose, looks at me from across the table, and asks about the entry marked, “Baron, brokerage fee: $200 thousand.”
It’s odd the Teamsters would hire an attorney to work on their behalf — as they’re about to win my cemetery — and not apprise him of their loan policy. Like Knievel’s crash landing, what happens next plays back in my memory, randomly and frequently, in slow motion detail for the rest of my life.
If you’ve ever hunted quail, you know what it’s like to flush a covey from their roost. One second they’re peacefully going about their quail business. The next, they’re scattering in all directions, every bird for himself. When I tell Guild the entry is just as described: Alvin Baron’s brokerage fee, which I paid out in cash over three installments — half the men at the table abruptly jump from their seats and leave the room, scattering, like quail, in all directions. Some never return.
The meeting wraps up shortly thereafter and ends inconclusively. As I fly back to Sacramento, I try to process what just happened. As far as I know, I still own a cemetery, so I guess it’s time to get back to work.
Before I hear from the Teamsters, I get a visit from a man claiming to represent the Office of the U.S. Attorney General. He knows a lot about my business and even more about the Teamsters. He’s of the opinion I’ve done some things that don’t fully ascribe to the letter of the law. When he brings up the $50 thousand I took from the perpetual care fund for twelve days, I don’t disagree on the illegality, though I remind him it did no harm.
As the conversation continues, he seems more interested in Alvin Baron’s business than my own. I tell him what I told the trustees in Chicago — Baron helped secure a loan when no other avenues were open to me. And for that, he earned a brokerage fee. I don’t see any crime there. That’s how I’ve always done business with the Teamsters, I tell him.
In November of 1976, Baron is handed a federal indictment on charges of accepting a kickback (from me), mail fraud, wire fraud and filing a false tax return.
I continue operating Mount Vernon. I do not continue making payments on my Teamster loan. In June of 1978, I return to Chicago, this time as the federal government’s star witness in Alvin Baron’s criminal trial.
They don’t ask me whether I think he deserved to earn a brokerage fee.
They don’t ask me if I paid it to him of my own volition.
They simply ask me what I already told them and the Teamsters — how much I paid Baron, and when and where the transactions took place.
The federal prosecutor sets the stage as a battle of personal integrity between Baron, a thoroughly corrupt man, and me, a desperate man. That’s not exactly what I’d want on my tombstone, but I suppose I have to trust the process. As evidence, the prosecution offers my detailed financial ledgers showing the dates and amounts of the three cash payments to Baron, along with my sworn testimony and that of my wife, who witnessed the third transaction. Other potential witnesses invoke their rights under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate themselves.
The defense takes a position that since Baron was a mid-level employee making only $100 thousand a year, he did not wield sufficient power to influence the decision to make loans. Neither Baron nor the Teamsters have any such ledger showing receipt of brokerage fees. The defense seeks to use that to their advantage, essentially telling the jury if you can’t find the cash, you can’t find him guilty. That does not surprise me. Cigars are meant to be smoked. No one asks me, but I can tell you where the cash went. The cash bought steak dinners. The cash tipped cocktail waitresses and taxi drivers. Some of the cash, I imagine, was ferreted away for a rainy day.
Juris Prudence and Mister Smith goes to Washington aside — after all is said and done, it comes down to 12 of your peers deciding who seems more trustworthy. Like the other guy from Mount Vernon, I cannot tell a lie — and the jury knows.
Baron is convicted on all charges.
Mount Vernon remains my property, but by March of 1977, the business has a net worth of negative $1 million.
In 1987, in celebration of our Constitution’s Bicentennial, the Walt Disney World resort in Florida borrows my Liberty Bell. Why my bell? What did I get in return? Why did Disney borrow my bell in California and drive it 2,827 miles to Florida? Why didn’t they borrow the bell from the cemetery 19 miles away? That’s another story for another time. Let’s just say it’s good to have Walt Disney owe you one.
Over 22 months, my bell is seen by more than 20 million people — ten times more visitors than the original in Philadelphia. Take that, City of Brotherly Love. The temporary display is so popular, Disney orders their own Liberty Bell, the 300th replica cast by Paccard.
When it’s time, I retire. The Mount Vernon name remains, but the cemetery is now owned by SCI, one of the few so-called death-care companies that now own most of America’s graveyards, under their Dignity Memorial brand.
Evel Knievel dies in 2007 on the way to the hospital, not from injuries sustained in a spectacular crash, but from complications of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. He lives long enough to see his son accomplish what he could not, albeit it on a bike half the weight and designed to fly.
Truck drivers and warehouse workers and maintenance men across America, who dutifully paid into their pension funds over the years, are retiring in spades. Despite federal oversight since 1982, the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund is $26 billion short and projected to be insolvent by 2025.
I die in 2003 at the ripe old age of 89. I’m laid to rest next to my beloved Loraine and my son Steven. Much can be said about me, I’m sure. But I’m not around to hear it. When they lower me down into Mount Vernon’s hallowed ground, I hope they say he was a man of his word. He lived the American dream. He took a gamble. He made it. He owned his own funeral hall. He’s buried in his own cemetery.
How many people can you say that about?