By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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Chris tried to remain positive about their situation; he knew his father was no bum and that they'd bounce back in no time at all. Aaron seemed more deflated.
"I don't know how to explain it. I was sad, I guess," he says. "I was just, like, let down that Enron would do that. I was just getting ready to know everyone and I just thought about all the friends I'd just made that I'm going to leave -- again." They considered an offer from one of Aaron's friends to stay in Houston and finish out the school year. But he needed to follow the family. They were going home.
A few days after Christmas, after the boys had a going-away party, the family headed back up to Wisconsin. Chris stayed behind a day with his father to pack up the house. This time when they left town, they didn't go by limo.
The unraveling that brought one of America's largest and supposedly strongest companies to its knees delivered a crushing blow to thousands of Houston families. Those who may have felt it the worst perhaps understood it the least -- for the children's world of economics and emotions was shaped in truly trickle-down ways.
Enron's meteoric rise to fame and fortune still lingers on the official company Web site, listing thousands of employees worldwide and billions and billions in assets. But by halting the company history and noteworthy milestones midway through 2000 -- right about the time Chris Boutcher was getting on a plane for Houston -- it omits the messy final act that made the term "Enronomics" synonymous with fiscal deception, dodgy business practices and, ultimately, colossal failure.
More than 4,000 employees were laid off in December 2001, shortly after the company filed for what was at that point the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Over the course of the '90s, Enron had morphed from a simple pipeline outfit to a run-and-gun megatrader dealing in water, power production and broadband. Shady bookkeeping obscured losses, and the company's real condition, from financial reports and the stock price, which made up employees' retirement plans, went into freefall, bottoming out at less than a dollar per share. Along the way, Arthur Andersen came unglued as well, when the auditing firm was found to have been shredding Enron documents during a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.
Enron was big -- the seventh-largest company in the nation, in fact -- but it was the little things that stood tall in the minds of Enron children like Nicole Pharms. Nicole, a cheerful 17-year-old, lives with her parents in a pleasant peach house in League City. It's an older patch of suburbia near fresh-cut tract homes where the streets have faux-gentry names like Buttercup and Fresh Meadow.
Nicole's mother, Melinda, had worked for Enron since the mid-'90s. Nicole talks about the extras that Enron provided: the lavishly catered suite at the rodeo, the supercheap tickets to the symphony, the opportunity to tag along at a United Negro College Fund event that her mother organized. Nicole met Ken Lay that night and got a picture taken with him and his wife.
"I remember he had this really fancy pen, and it had, like, gold or something on it," she says. "And I was like, 'Oh, I want one of these pens,' and he's like, 'Well, one day you will have one.' You know -- 'your mom's a hard worker and I'm sure you're a hard worker' and this whole charade. And I, now I look back on it, I'm, like, I start laughing."
The high-pressure environment, though, made a serious impression on Melinda and, in turn, Nicole.
"My mom, I know, would come home sometimes so aggravated and irritated because it's really cutthroat," she says. "She would come home and be like, 'You know, I did all this work and it's still not good enough. And people come back and steal your ideas ' It hurt her feelings."
In a way, her mother's salary was, in itself, an "extra," given that her father held a full-time job at Continental that kept them afloat after the layoffs swept through. Still, many of the kids at Nicole's Clear Creek High School didn't understand things like why she had to give up her cell phone, why simplicity had replaced excess.
"Kids come to school and they have BMWs and Cadillacs and nice cars and, you know, they're not used to -- they don't know anything about simplicity," she says. "Some were like, 'Well, that's too bad, I still have my little car, my own life, and I live on the water' and all this stuff. You know, real snobby. But it didn't really affect me. I mean, it affected me a little. I think I was hurt by the fact that some people, you know, they showed they were insensitive about it."
She says her tenth-grade science teacher showed little sympathy as well.
"At school, some of the kids knew my mom worked at Enron, and my teacher -- I'll never forget this -- my biology teacher was so mean about everything," she says. "She was like, 'Well, somebody's not going to have any Christmas gifts.' She said that in front of the whole class!"
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