Children of Enron

One of Ken Lay's many legacies: the families whose lives were disrupted by the fall

A once-proud company had been reduced to a mockery. The aggressive ambition that drove Enron has been well documented, as has the "best of the best" swagger that sometimes oozed from the executive class on down.

To be certain, Nicole had not tumbled from 90210 into Hooverville -- and she is careful to reiterate that you can turn on the news and see kids out there, even Enron kids, who were a lot worse off than she was. Still, a tale of reduced expectations and sudden fiscal sobriety does seem to resonate with Generation E as a whole: those children weaned on wealth suddenly drop-kicked into sensible spending habits.

When her mother was laid off, Sarah Konczakowski 
felt alienated from her schoolmates.
When her mother was laid off, Sarah Konczakowski felt alienated from her schoolmates.
Mindee Peterson lost her father to cancer the year 
after he was laid off.
Mindee Peterson lost her father to cancer the year after he was laid off.

That drop-kick left Sarah Konczakowski, now 19, and her mother, Jamey Duckworth, in pretty bad shape -- maybe as much as any white-collar wipeout. Sarah's Woodlands High School is about 60 miles up I-45 from Nicole's Clear Creek, though the two schools seem separated by little socioeconomic distance. When her single mother, whom Sarah describes as her best friend, spent months out of work, Sarah felt a renewed sense of alienation from her ritzy neighborhood.

This was tough because, for the first time, Sarah felt like they'd finally made it. She speaks softly about the rocky financial road that led up to her mother finding work at Enron.

"I was really proud, and I felt like I would fit in more with the kids in The Woodlands 'cause it's a real high-class area," she says. "I felt like I could fit in more and do a lot more things that were closer to their level." Visiting her mom at work in the downtown skyscraper -- an experience that inspired other Enron kids -- left her with a sense of grandeur and hope.

"I've never seen an office or a building like that. The elevators had TVs that played the news or the weather. And they had this dining area that you could eat any kind of food you could imagine!" she says. The Starbucks in the lobby was a particular symbol of triumph for Sarah. Only a few years earlier they had survived on her mother's Starbucks salary. Sarah repeats that her mother had always tried her best to get her clothes and things that would help her fit in, but that "I always knew where we stood in terms of our class or whatever."

When the bottom dropped out in December 2001, Sarah initially responded with a mix of anger and disappointment. "It was kind of panicky because all of a sudden we had all this and we might go to nothing again," she says. With little work to be had, her mother resorted to going on the government's temporary assistance for needy families for a period and trying to get by with food stamps and gas vouchers. A radio station donated money for a Christmas tree. Sarah started seeing a therapist and went on antidepressant medication.

"That helped a lot because I could vent about all these people who were rich and snobby," she says. It wasn't just Enron, not at all, but losing a job didn't help. She had one friend at school whose father worked for Enron, too. When he graduated, he joined the marines and has since been helping his family dig their way out of their financial hole.

"We just talked about it. He says out of everybody we know, we can relate to each other, but we can't relate to other people."

"I think it brought a lot of people together," she adds later. "We never realized how lucky we were until people started to help us."

Like Enron itself, Mindee Peterson's father appeared to be in excellent health in the early part of 2001. The stages of life, along with the years, had flown by. Her parents were past "empty nest." They had already made it "over the hill." With a good job at a great company, Bill Peterson seemed to be gliding into his golden years. His daughter felt positive about things, and she had good reason to.

"They'd go out on date nights on Friday night," says Mindee, a 29-year-old legal assistant. "Dad was working, he loved his job. Mom was staying home, she loved taking care of the house and the yard and cooking…It was the American dream come true."

Unlike the others, Mindee was no longer dependent -- she hadn't been in a decade -- but she wasn't beyond enjoying nice treats from her parents. She points to the entertainment center in her apartment, the TV. The times she'd drive home from their place and find a $20 bill hidden in the console for gas.

Her father, a Lotus Notes administrator, could reel off the core values of Enron.

"Whatever it took to get the job done, that's what he was going to do," she says, remembering the 12-hour days and the 2 a.m. wake-up calls to fix the network. "He believed Enron when they said, 'These are our core values.' "

In July 2001, Bill Peterson was diagnosed with advanced-stage melanoma and went on medical leave, getting chemo treatments through the company insurance. Mindee knew from Internet research that the outcome looked bleak, but a combination of strong family support, a firm faith in God and great insurance made her believe that he had a fighting chance. Even as the media buzz grew louder about Enron's impending implosion in the fall, she tried to stay focused -- and more so, keep her father focused -- on recovery.

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