(In)voices from the Dead

Lunn (shown in this '80 photo) received several journalism awards.
Courtesy of Robert Lunn

After four months, Robert Lunn largely has resolved his grief over the sudden death of his wife. That was no small accomplishment for a couple that had been together since their college romance days of more than 50 years ago.

He'd been a market researcher who marveled at Judy's accomplishments. The self-taught writer became the longtime fashion editor for The Houston Post, a sophisticated woman whose work took her to glamorous destinations such as Paris, Rome and Milan. She mingled with the icons in the world of fashion, collecting assorted national journalism awards in the process.

That period ended in 1995, when the Houston Chronicle bought the Post and shelved it. "That was a tough deal when the paper closed," Robert remembers. "Where would a former fashion editor, [then] 60 years old, make a decent living? Be realistic."

Six years ago, she signed up as an $8 hourly contract worker for the Judy Nichols and Associates public relations firm. On September 11, she took the family dog for a walk before her scheduled afternoon of office work. Judy collapsed and died, apparently from a rare condition that turned an ordinary insect bite into a lethal allergic shock.

"We had a good, long 'trip' -- two daughters, a good marriage," her husband says. "Everything was fine."

With one exception: The family feels there's a final indignity in their memories of the proud woman. Her boss, Judy Nichols, adamantly refuses to pay Lunn's wages for her final weeks of work.

Nichols's reasons are varied. She now insists that Lunn really doesn't deserve some of the money Nichols paid her previously. The publicist refers to the remaining unpaid wages as insignificant. Besides, Nichols points out, she hasn't received Judy Lunn's invoice for those final days.

"I paid her for all the invoices that I had," Nichols says. "She was not paid for August because she didn't submit an invoice."

That infuriates the widower, who wonders how Nichols could expect the deceased to supply a bill.

"There's a principle involved here," he says. "It is just mean to cheat a dead woman out of a few hundred bucks. That's the issue, in my mind."

As unexpected as Lunn's death was, the family did know the dangers posed to Lunn from common insect bites or stings.

Robert Lunn tells of returning from walking the dog in 1996 to find Judy on the floor, felled from an apparent insect bite. "It almost killed her that time," he says. She received special medication to carry as an antidote. "She should have had it with her, but after seven years, you kind of blow it off. It was an accident waiting to happen -- I have to look at it that way, and I really feel that way." She died before she could get back inside her house to get to the antidote.

One of the calls he made that afternoon was to Nichols, to tell her his wife would not be coming to work. Nichols and Associates is a small firm that represents several restaurants and Everyones Internet (EV1), the expanding Internet service provider. The high-profile Nichols has been part of the city's social set for some years. She's kept a wall of old photos of her with various celebrities, and among her friends is Rich Little, the past-his-prime impersonator.

But Lunn had no notions about entering a glamorous profession, her widower explains.

"She didn't take this job out of love for the PR business, which she didn't particularly care for. But it was a relatively easy job; she could pretty well call her own hours. It helped pay the bills, and it was something for her to do."

Her husband estimates that she made about $20,000 yearly. In addition to the $8 hourly pay, she got $50 a page for writing press releases -- but only if Nichols approved of the way they were written. In the latter part of her time there, Lunn also received $500 a month as a retainer for her work on the account for Everyones Internet.

Her labor ranged from secretarial duties, such as answering phones in the two-person office, to accompanying Nichols to client meetings, helping her hustle new customers, conferring with clients and pounding out press releases -- whatever needed to be done.

The EV1 retainer checks arrived promptly around the first of the month, although Robert Lunn says the firm typically took a couple of months or so to pay her invoices for work performed, so she never rushed to submit her bills for the work.

After her death, Nichols held an impressive reception at one of her clients' restaurants to honor Judy Lunn. She praised the dead woman's writing and command of the language in a quote in the Chronicle's obituary, and in a later interview for this article, Nichols similarly commended her as a valued worker.

Robert Lunn says that makes him all the more disgusted about her reaction when he talked to her in late October, explaining that he was trying to settle up on the assets due the estate, of which the unpaid wages were a part.

"You will never see another check out of this office; Judy never did a goddamn thing around here," he quotes Nichols as saying. He says she told him that Judy never earned the $500 monthly for the EV1 account.

Nichols strongly disputes the words Lunn attributes to her, and argues that Lunn's personality clashes with EV1 executives led her to pull the assistant off that account. Then Nichols changes that explanation to say they didn't like her writing style.

Now, the publicist views herself as a kindly benefactor who dispensed what is in effect charity to Lunn, in the form of retainer checks.

"That was just a gracious contribution that I decided to give her," she insists, adding that the commitment now "is slapping me back in the face."

Nichols says she has no idea what Lunn did in her final weeks and that the money owed would be minimal at best: "You can't be talking about very much for the month of August, regardless of what it is."

Robert Lunn says he would have subtracted the EV1 retainer check and submitted a modest bill that would probably total less than $1,000. He says that only his daughters could talk him out of suing her, pointing out that attorneys' fees would cost several times more than the bill.

As it stands now, Judy Lunn received her $500 EV1 retainer on September 1 -- ten days before her death. Three days later, a $364 check arrived for the last invoice Lunn submitted, for work from June 30 to July 3.

By the family's estimation, that leaves more than two months of unpaid work. Nichols says she doesn't care what the widower claims. Robert Lunn "wasn't here, and he didn't know."

But his wife left behind a mound of documentation. He uncovered her extensive notes dating back years -- "you know how reporters are," he says, "they have to write everything down." The weeks leading up to her death show notations, usually in shorthand, some of them virtually undecipherable to anyone but herself.

Those records indicate that if Nichols pulled her assistant off the EV1 account, she never bothered to let Judy Lunn in on it. They detail various EV1 PR endeavors on Lunn's part, as well as other work in the disputed two months. The notes end the day before her death, with five hours of work for Judy Nichols and Associates.

Lunn says he's learned one lesson: Nichols may pay her respects to the dead -- but for anything else, they better have an invoice.

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