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By Ray Stern
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A few years ago, U-Haul founder L.S. Shoen finally stopped sending me copies of his interminable missives to his dozen children. I'd gotten on his extensive mailing list in the late 1980s, while preparing a story about the haunted House of Shoen.
Written before the word "dysfunctional" became vogue, the story described how Shoen's progeny had become the corporate raiders of his great American dream. Titled "Hit the Road, Daddy," it detailed the vicious family feud -- which had culminated (or so I'd thought) when a majority of Shoen's 12 children had kicked him out of the billion-dollar business he'd started on a wing and a prayer (and $5,000 in savings) in 1945.
I revisited my U-Haul notes and my memory bank last week after learning of Shoen's apparent suicide in Las Vegas at the age of 83. Las Vegas police say Shoen, a brilliant but tortured soul, veered his car into a wooden utility pole shortly before noon on October 4.
Shoen's tale had several classic subplots, including:
The demanding skinflint who picked fruit, cut hair and saved a buck here and there until he devised an inexpensive way for Americans after World War II to migrate to the West.
The oft-married father who alternately doted on and alienated his children, then gave them millions during his lifetime, only to see many of them turn their backs on him.
I first met Shoen in person at the Vegas manor in which he lived with his fifth wife, a friendly, middle-aged woman named Carol, and her young daughter. He took me to what he called his "war room," a study dominated by a large computer and piles of UHaul-related documents.
A photograph of Legend City -- the east Phoenix amusement park that Shoen bought and operated in the late 1960s in an attempt to create a "family project" for his splintering brood -- hung on one wall.
Then in his early 70s, Shoen had a belly laugh and affected a folksy style that made clear why someone long ago had dubbed him "Slick."
Shoen told me brightly how, on June 2, 1970, he'd locked his top 60 executives in a conference room on U-Haul's top floor, and lectured them about money. To illustrate his point -- whatever it was -- Shoen pulled a thousand dollars in cash (denominations unknown) from his wallet, opened a window and tossed the money out during the evening rush hour. Phoenix papers reported on the resulting traffic jam.
Great material for a cool yarn. But the conversation turned dark as Shoen spoke openly about his frequent bouts with depression -- for which he blamed his wayward kids.
He told me how, years earlier, he'd ordered his staff at U-Haul to place white-marble lions in front of the firm's headquarters. Said to be able to ward off evil spirits, the Chinese-made lions still are visible, facing out toward Central Avenue. Shoen suggested that U-Haul might have been better served if the marble creatures could be turned toward the building, where his own flesh and blood had taken control.
Much of Shoen's last decade was consumed with family-related litigation, from which he emerged victorious in court more often than not. In November 1994, for example, a Maricopa County jury ordered the UHaul board to pay Shoen and the children on his side of the protracted business war $1.48 billion for their 47 percent share of the parent company's stock. (By this time, L.S. Shoen owned only 2 percent of the company he'd founded.)
It was the largest jury award in Arizona history. A judge later cut the verdict to $461.8 million.
Tragedy struck the Shoen clan a few years after we published our U-Haul story. In 1990, a drifter murdered Eva Shoen -- wife of L.S.'s oldest son, Sam, during a robbery at the couple's Telluride home. Eva Shoen was a lovely, calm woman who had been very kind to me while I was reporting the story.
Before the cops caught the killer in 1993, L.S. Shoen publicly aired his suspicions that two of his sons, Joe and Mark Shoen, "either did [the killing] or hired the killers themselves" because they hated their brother Sam.
Those brothers sued their father and another brother for libel and slander, but again lost their case at trial.
Many of his children remained estranged from Shoen until he died. The manner of his death already has led the suspicious to pose: Did he really kill himself, or did someone set him up?
Who knows? One tangential answer is that L.S. Shoen undoubtedly will be remembered as much for the internecine mess that he helped spawn as for his enterprising spirit.
"People might say I was a fool for letting this happen," he told me a decade ago, "but I was an interesting fool."
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: email@example.com