When In Doubt Call Collect

Paul Huntington of Longview, Washington, passed away due to a heart attack last week. As a District Manager for the Equitable Life Assurance Society, Paul was the man who hired me to sell insurance back in 1974. I’ve spoken about my years of teaching in these essays, but in Paul’s honor I’d like to tell about my ten years in the life insurance industry.

The story actually starts long before 1974. During the Great Depression, with one final $300 payment due on the family farm in South Dakota, my grandfather suffered a heart attack. He had an Equitable life insurance policy with enough cash value in it to make the payment. After cashing in the policy, he was never insurable again, although he lived well into his late seventies, but the farm remained in the family long after he was gone.

Needless to say, that whole story made a big impression on my father, and so, in 1956 when he had the opportunity to go to work for that same company, he did so and became, as the commercials said back then, Bisbee’s “Man from Equitable.” By the way, the Equitable’s hiring guidelines back then were as follows: Never hire a man whose wife works and never ever hire a woman.” That changed in the early seventies due to the fact that the CEO at the time, a man named Coy Eklund, had next door neighbors whose little girl grew up to be Gloria Steinem. Remember her?

When I married Jerry Janc in 1968, my father made sure I had a life insurance policy on him on which I was both the owner and the beneficiary. Once we decided to have kids, the health insurance offered by the school district didn’t include maternity coverage. Equitable’s major medical policy didn’t either, so we ended up tracking down a New York Life agent who sold us a policy that did.

When we left the reservation and moved to Pe Ell, Washington, in 1973, I went to the New York Life office in Chehalis to change the address on that policy. When the agent there asked about our life insurance situation, I told him that I thought we had that covered. His response? “People who believe in life insurance can sell life insurance. How would you like to go to work for me?” What? Go to work for the competition? Never, but he had planted a seed in my head. One of the things that kept me from doing anything about it was the fact that I was pregnant at the time.

We left the reservation in search of my husband’s dream—20 acres on a river. That’s how we ended up in an old farm house with five acres on the Chehalis River in Pe Ell. (By the way, our next door neighbor was the garbage dump.) We had gone from a two-income family to a one income family, and by the middle of 1974, after my son was born, I could see that we were about to be in big trouble financially. That’s when I started looking for a job. I applied to several local school districts, to no avail. And then I remembered what the guy from New York Life had said to me months earlier.

At the time, if you needed help with an Equitable policy, you were advised to call the nearest local office collect, and that office happened to be in Longview, Washington, an hour and ten minutes away. So I did just that, I called collect, spoke to Paul Huntington, and asked him for a job. He invited me in for an interview. I was still nursing my son at that point. I got dressed, fed him, and then raced out the door to drive to Longview. I returned three hours later, soaking wet.

During the interview, Paul asked me if I had any previous sales experience. “Well,” I told him, “I sold All Occasion Greeting Cards (The Junior Sales Club of America) and Girl Scout Cookies. Do those count?” Evidently the answer was yes, because weeks later he offered me a contract. On the same day, I heard from the Superintendent of Schools in Vader/Ryderwood School District. He, too, was willing to offer me a job, not as a librarian, by the way, but as an elementary teacher. “We have this particular group of third graders,” he said. In the years since, I’ve often remembered those words and wondered if any of those “particular” third graders grew up to be serial killers. But that comment was enough to push me over the edge. I called Paul back, told him I was in, and set about weaning my baby.

As Paul’s trainee, we went on appointments together. He was a car buff, and it was always a challenge to keep the interview focused on insurance. One of my clients in Vancouver had been awarded her husband’s Shelby Cobra as part of a divorce settlement. That interview was difficult to keep on track, but eventually Paul and I walked away with an application and a check. At some point, after Bill and I married, we visited Paul and his wife, Barbara, in Longview. While there, Paul was glad to discuss his car collection which included several Corvettes and … a Shelby Cobra. Did he buy it from that insurance client long after the fact? We’ll never know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

As I said, during those several years in Washington the first time around, my marriage was already in deep trouble, and Paul and Barbara were like a safe haven for me. Several times they invited me to dinner at their gracious home on Kessler Boulevard. The way they were together—the way they treated each other—was like a beacon of light to me. They showed me how a marriage could be, and years later, when Bill asked me to marry him, the Huntingtons’ shining example was part of why I said yes.

I worked for Paul for the next two years before I left Pe Ell to return to Arizona. As I was getting ready to head south, Paul asked me how come I had called collect to ask him for a job. I told him, “If I’d had enough money for a long distance call, I wouldn’t have needed this job.”

I stayed in the life insurance business for the next ten years—long enough to earn a small pension. Each time I cash one of those checks, I know I have Paul Huntington to thank for it, because he was the one willing to take a chance on a woman who called him collect to ask for a job.

If any of my readers have ever wondered why Joanna Brady was working for an insurance company at the beginning of Desert Heat? Now you know.

That’s thanks to Paul Huntington, too.