THE U-HAUL TRAGEDY

L.S. Shoen is a lonely, 78-year-old man who now lives in a small tract house outside Las Vegas. He is regarded by some as a business genius, responsible for building the billion-dollar U-Haul empire.

He has fathered 12 children. Some hate him enough to have run him off from the company he built by virtue of working 16-hour days for more than 20 years.

Shoen once regarded himself a colorful character who incidentally made a lot of money. Now he realizes he has become a tragic figure. Not even a recent court verdict of $1.4 billion against two of his sons and his company can make things right with his life again.

For the old man, there has been nothing but pain since he turned the company over to his sons in an act of paternal generosity when he turned 70.

Not long afterward, the faction of sons that hates him kicked him out.
The story of the Shoen family feud is complex and twisted. There is so much intrafamily violence, it could be the basis of a Eugene O'Neill tragedy.

Scattered throughout the family history are totally bizarre acts, threats of violence and a couple of brutal beatings Shoen's sons administered to each other in full view of their father. Finally, there was the murder of the old man's favorite daughter-in-law.

Part of that story seemed to end last week. In Montrose, Colorado, an ex-con named Frank Marquis admitted that he fatally shot Mrs. Eva Shoen, the wife of Sam Shoen, the oldest son, in Telluride, Colorado, in 1990.

But even Marquis' admission from the witness stand that he fired the fatal shot on his own, and that there was no murder-for-hire scheme devised by any of the feuding Shoen brothers, does not bring closure.

There is a libel suit pending against the old man, who is charged with intimating that his sons Mark and Joe Shoen were responsible for the crime.

"When a person makes the kind of statement like my dad, it has a great deal of credibility," Mark Shoen told The Business Journal. "People have to understand that L.S. Shoen is not a storybook father. He has a lot of personal demons of his own."

Mark promises the feud with his father will never end.
"Sure, he is my father, but I don't like some of the things he has done. We won't kiss and make up when the lawsuit is over."

The old man and his chief ally, son Sam, are pressing additional claims against the company, seeking another verdict that could boost their judgment against the present U-Haul operators to a total of $3 billion.

There was a time when the old man was eager to answer the phone, and would talk about the case at length. Now all that has changed. If you call his phone number in Las Vegas, you get a secretary who says she will give him the message that you called.

Apparently, the old man is through talking. If you call his lawyer, Gil Shaw, here in Phoenix, you get a recorded message asking you to state your business and leave your phone number.

What a way for L.S. Shoen to end up. As a young man, he boasted of being kicked out of medical school because he gave a fellow student some answers. Those were the days when everyone called him "Slick."

He started U-Haul on a shoestring after the Second World War. Veterans were moving all over the country. He rented them trailers to do it cheaply.

That's when he worked 16-hour days, slept in the cheapest motels and took all of his meals at McDonald's.

Shoen moved the headquarters of the business to Phoenix in 1963, placing the company headquarters at 2727 North Central, a block south of Thomas Road. It's still there.

He has been married three times. His first wife bore him six children. She died of a heart attack after 13 years of marriage. When he was 41, he married Suzanne Gilbert, then 23. They had five more children, and were divorced after 19 years.

It was his third wife who gave Shoen his 12th child.
Anyone familiar with the L.S. Shoen story recalls the day in 1970 when he decided to give his employees an example about the value of money.

The old man called his top employees into his office. They could not get out, because he had placed an armed guard at the door.

Once he had their attention, Shoen tossed $1,000 in mixed denominations of bills out the window. They fluttered down onto Central Avenue, causing a wild melee.

"I wanted to make a point," the old man said later. "I wanted them to realize that when an executive spends money on something that only makes him feel good, he might as well be throwing it into the street.

 
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