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A Retirement Plan That Fell Short on Compassion

A fellow followed Suzie Sunflower a week ago Friday, as she was leaving a county office building.

She looked distressed, so he asked, “Has somebody been giving you a bad time?”

Somebody had.

Even though they were strangers, they went out for lunch, where she told him the whole story.

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She told him about her husband of 27 years, Harry Montgomery Coles, and about some of the important contributions Harry had made to the county of Los Angeles.

She told him about the work Harry had done for the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, particularly everything he had meant to patients there who use walkers or wheelchairs.

And then she told him what had happened to Harry a few weeks ago, and what she had just been told.

The guy listened to every word.

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“How can I help?” he asked.

“I wish I knew,” Suzie said.

*

A week later, it’s the last day of class at the little First Lutheran elementary school at 6th and Shatto, before letting out for the summer.

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As a substitute teacher here, Suzie Sunflower calculates that she earned around $2,700 for all of last year.

She enjoys the work, enjoys being around all the kids playing today in the schoolyard.

For many years before this, “Mama Suzie,” as some call her, taught school full time. Before that, she spent 10 years as a Roman Catholic nun, leaving the order upon coming to the realization that she wanted to have children of her own.

Joyzelle Potier was born June 14, 1930, in Louisiana, to parents of French-Indian descent. Suzie Sunflower is her Cherokee name. Her father is a full-blooded Native American who lives in Hawaii and is still in quite good health at 94.

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Suzie is in excellent health herself. She expects to live a long, full life.

But how rich a life it is depends on the trouble with Harry.

“Here’s our marriage certificate,” she says, producing a copy dated Sept. 8, 1971, and duly executed in Tijuana, Mexico.

Now here’s what happened:

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Harry Coles worked 24 years at Rancho Los Amigos as a recreation therapist. He helped to pioneer programs in wheelchair sports. He gained acclaim for having crusaded for legislation that mandated wheelchair access on L.A. County’s sidewalks and curbs.

A lot of people also knew Harry Coles from the popular Magic Castle club for magicians. He spent a number of years there as its (unpaid) librarian, and for 32 consecutive children’s Christmas parties had dressed up as Santa Claus.

On Sept. 1, 1972, a year after getting married, Harry retired from his job at the hospital.

He and Mama Suzie made ends meet. They had his Navy benefits, his Social Security and his pension. She had her teaching. At a relatively late age, they had a son, Michael Red Wind, who is now 26. Suzie also has a son from a previous relationship, John Red Bear.

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A few years ago, Harry had a stroke, then another. A massive one hospitalized him this January, and later Harry was moved to a convalescent home in East L.A.

Suzie came by on a Saturday morning in May, helped him bathe and shave, ate lunch, kissed him and said, “See you tomorrow,” but there was no tomorrow. Harry died. He was 80.

You always think you’re prepared.

Harry’s wife did. In their 27 years together, Suzie understood that in case of death, she would receive 60% of his L.A. County employees pension, or approximately $640 a month.

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What no one told her--until a week ago Friday--was that because Harry had taken retirement before being married a full year, his wife would not be entitled to any benefits.

He retired seven days short.

*

As this was explained to Suzie for the first time, “it was like they were reading me the 6 o’clock news. Like it was nothing out of the ordinary. What really hurts is that they’ve known about this for 27 years, without ever saying a word.”

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She can go on welfare. She doesn’t want welfare.

“What’s the difference which branch I get the money from,” she asks, “except to my own dignity?”

A public official with a heart could intervene, come to the aid of a woman sunk in a bureaucratic quicksand. Perhaps one will.

Suzie Sunflower hopes so. Now that her Harry’s gone, somebody else has to be Santa Claus.

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Mike Downey’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.


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