Thanks for Quitting. Heres Your Gold Watch.
Doris Tryon keeps busy any way she can.
In the evenings, she rips drywall from the kitchen of her mobile home, which is located on a half-acre desert lot 40 miles west of Phoenix. The plasterboard will soon be replaced by new cabinets.
Doris doesn't like to be idle--in mind, body or spirit.
When she's not remodeling, the 63-year-old former real estate broker spends time with her church group. Even when she's just talking, Doris keeps her hands moving; on this January afternoon, she's creating a needlepoint banner for an upcoming spiritual retreat.
Whether it's been starting a volunteer fire department, raising her three boys, or helping out more than a dozen other children along the way, Doris has always been on the move--usually helping others.
But it's different now.
Now that Fred is gone.
Doris is trying to fill a hole in her soul that hurts far more than any physical pain she's been through. And Lord knows, Doris has been through a medical nightmare that would leave most people feeling hopeless and physically wasted.
For 45 years, Doris and Fred Tryon were almost always together.
"It was love at first sight. When I saw him, with his beautiful eyes, I knew he was the most wonderful man I ever met," says Doris.
He was a mechanic, hunter, outdoorsman, firefighter, husband, father and leader--in Doris' eyes, Fred Tryon could damn near do anything.
And Fred's primary concern had always been his wife's frail health. Obtaining medical insurance was paramount. In 1986, Fred did just that by landing a job with Arizona Public Service Company as a security guard at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
Fred worked at Palo Verde for seven years, earning commendations from superiors and accolades from his co-workers. But Fred made one mistake. He supported the formation of a union, the only union now in place at Palo Verde, the nation's largest nuclear generating station.
Exercising this legal right appears to have proved costly.
In 1993, Fred decided to retire at age 62. The company sent him letters outlining his retirement benefits, which included continued medical insurance for his wife.
On February 25, 1993, APS managers gave Fred a gold watch symbolizing his retirement. His supervisor wrote a letter thanking Fred for his performance. Co-workers threw a party.
But the joy of retirement didn't last long. A week later, APS informed Fred there had been a mistake. Fred hadn't retired, after all. No, APS personnel officials said, Fred had quit.
And quitters don't get insurance benefits, or retirement pay. Or medical coverage for wives who have leukemia.
Dead goldfish float upside down in the stone pond Fred Tryon built in the backyard last fall.
Nearby sits an old school bus Fred had overhauled and turned into a minicamper, a "For Sale" sign on its windshield. Next door, where Fred's son and grandchildren live, a playhouse Fred was building awaits completion. The animals in the steel corral Fred built are gone.
In Fred's workshop, a dozen or so ammunition-loading machines line the edge of a Ushaped workbench. Bullet casings of every size and shape are stored nearby.
"I remember seeing him sitting there with a beer in one hand, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, saying he had enough gunpowder to put together a half-million rounds," says longtime friend Peter Smith.
Despite his imbibing, Fred Tryon was admired by his Palo Verde co-workers for a physical prowess that ranged from hunting to participation in the Palo Verde Designated Response Team, an elite group of volunteer security guards.
"I was kind of envious of him when you look at the physical shape he was in," says former co-worker Mike Robbins. "When he came and told me he was retiring, I was shocked. He looked much younger."
Fred left his mark everywhere at the Tryons' desert homestead; he also left an inspiring legacy.
Whether it involved rescuing his son's Boy Scout troupe, which had become stranded in an ice cave near Flagstaff, or building a boat to cut upstream on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Fred always seemed up to the challenge.
"He was the patriarch," his youngest son Andy says.
He'd been one for a long time, and in a lot of different places.
In 1953, Doris and Fred Tryon moved from Indiana to California after Fred lost his job when the railroad he was working for closed down.
The couple landed in the small town of Fontana, located just west of Riverside, where Fred soon began a dual career as an automobile mechanic and a firefighter. In the summer of 1961, the young family moved to Palm Springs, where the weather was expected to be more suitable for one of the children, who was ill with arthritis and sinus infections.
Fred took college classes and firefighting training courses, rising to the rank of captain by 1971. During the same period, he also worked as a mechanic at a Palm Springs automobile dealership.
The next year, the family moved to Kachina Village, a then-tiny community about six miles south of Flagstaff. Doris worked as a real estate broker; her career took off, and the family enjoyed small-town life.
Soon after the Tryons moved to Kachina Village, a fire destroyed one of the six homes in the new subdivision they had moved into. Fred quickly put together a rudimentary fire protection service and was named fire chief on August 3, 1972.
Before long, Fred had scrounged a couple of pickup trucks and a 25-year-old open-cab fire truck from Los Angeles County. The fire department was up and running.
"He hooked and finagled every piece of equipment we had, just from people he knew in the business," says Peter Smith, now chairman of the board of the Kachina Village Volunteer Fire Department.
With virtually no money, Fred led volunteers in constructing Kachina Village's first fire station; he also organized the Kachina Village Fire District.
"He was gifted at being a team leader and an organizer of volunteers," Smith says.
The family moved from Flagstaff in 1977; Doris' medical problems required her to live at a lower altitude. The Tryons lived in Prescott and Glendale. Then, in 1982, Fred landed another fire chief job, this time at the Avra Valley Fire District north of Tucson.
Fred's work as fire chief drew widespread praise, but the modernization program he initiated also created some political friction. Fred was forced out after three years.
By this time, though, Fred had problems that dwarfed the concerns of small-town politics.
His wife was dying.
In 1974, Doris Tryon had a routine hernia operation at Flagstaff Medical Center. The operation didn't go well. Doris had to go back into the hospital for three weeks; over that time, she received several blood transfusions.
By the late 1970s, doctors began detecting a sharp decline in her red-blood-cell count and a corresponding increase in white blood cells. In 1980, Doris was sick with flulike symptoms; doctors began a series of tests. One day, the doctor called and told Doris and Fred to come to the office--together.
"The doctor said, 'You have leukemia. We don't know what kind, and we don't know how long you have to live,'" Doris says while working on her needlepoint project.
She began chemotherapy treatments within a week.
"From that day forward, I took at least six months of chemo treatments every year," Doris says.
The leukemia was later diagnosed as a type that normally afflicts elderly men. Although she has no proof, Doris believes she contracted the disease when given the blood transfusions in Flagstaff.
Throughout the 1980s, Doris continued with chemotherapy treatments. The chemicals used can gradually deteriorate nerves and organs. In 1987, she suffered a heart attack.
"There I was on the couch, and I was literally dead," she says.
Paramedics revived Doris on the way to the hospital. A short time later, she suffered a stroke that left her face partially paralyzed. She has since recovered from the paralysis.
In 1990, Doris' disease progressed. She now suffered from leukemia meningitis--a rare complication of leukemia that caused swelling in Doris' brain and sent her to the hospital once again, this time suffering from excruciating headaches. Now the chemotherapy was applied by spinal taps; that is, doctors would remove three ounces of her spinal fluid and insert three ounces of chemicals.
"My back became so scarred from so many treatments that it was hard to put the needle in," Doris says.
The early 1990s were difficult for Fred, not only because of his wife's illness, but also because of his work situation. His first four years as a security guard at Palo Verde had been relatively calm. In 1990, however, the year his wife contracted meningitis, Fred's work unit began organizing a union.
APS has a long history of fighting unions. The utility was not about to roll over when about 150 security guards made moves to join the United Plant Guard Workers of America. The workers voted in the union in 1991, and it was certified by the National Labor Relations Board the same year.
APS wasted no time in responding. The company cut pay for all security guards by 18percent, even as other workers at the power plant were receiving pay increases.
Although Fred had an excellent record tothat point, including several letters of commendation from his superiors, in 1991 hereceived a reduced job rating. The company stated the "decrease in overall job rating is the result of a change in management philosophy and should not be considered asan indication of decreased job performance."
To the union, the change in philosophy was quite clear.
"It was borderline bad-faith bargaining all the way," co-worker and union steward Mike Robbins says.
During the struggle, the union filed 14 unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The charges have all been settled or dropped in the past few years, and relations between the union and the company seem to be improving.
"It's just been really a tough row to hoe," Robbins says. "In the past year or so, it has calmed down a bit."
But it was a row Fred Tryon was weary of hoeing. While Fred was not a vocal leader in organizing the union, working conditions at the plant became increasingly stressful as the company pressured the guards not to join the union.
Early in 1993, Fred contacted the personnel department to discuss retirement. He had seven years with the company and had just turned 62.
Doris says she and Fred had decided they could get by on the reduced pension paid for early retirement, as long as they continued to have medical insurance coverage.
"His idea was if he could retire at 62 and get by financially, then he could take care of me," Doris says. "He just felt he had to be with me. He just didn't know from day to day how I would be."
Doris and Fred began discussions with APS personnel officials, and in mid-February 1993, Fred received the word he could retire, begin collecting a pension immediately and maintain health and life insurance.
"If we are not able to start your pension benefit in March, you will receive a double payment for the month of April," states a February 13, 1993, letter from Lorraine Harris, an official in the APS employee benefits department.
Two days later, Harris sent additional information to Fred showing that his pension would pay him from $157 to $196 a month, depending on what benefit plan Fred selected. The packet also stated that Fred had $32,400 in life insurance and would continue receiving medical insurance, if he desired.
With APS' promises in hand, Fred Tryon retired.
Two days after Fred thought he had retired, Doris had a relapse and was taken to the hospital. Later that week, Fred received another letter from APS.
APS had determined that, notwithstanding earlier communications, Fred wasn't eligible for medical and life insurance benefits. Also, the utility said, Fred wouldn't be receiving a pension until 1996, when he would turn 65.
Fred's son Andy says his father was loath to deal with APS after the company backed out on the insurance and retirement benefits. "He wanted to let sleeping dogs lay," he says.
So, to cover expenses, Fred picked up a job welding at a nearby dairy and worked as a part-time guard for a Tempe security agency. The biggest outlay was the private insurance premium for his wife, which topped $300 a month. Fred had been promised health insurance at a $60-per-month premium before he retired.
The couple borrowed money from the children and relatives to make ends meet.
Then the Tryons had a stroke of good luck for a change.
One evening, Fred was reading a shopping-center tabloid newspaper that had an article about a new "wonder" drug for leukemia, Fludoraban. Even though it was an experimental drug, Doris was adamant about using it. She finally persuaded her reluctant doctor to prescribe the drug beginning in early 1994.
For the next eight months, Fred applied the chemicals through an intravenous tube that ran up Doris' arm into the carotid artery in her neck. The chemical was applied five days a week, every third week. Doris continued to receive the spinal chemotherapy treatments as well.
The dual treatments began to show positive results in late 1994. By early 1995, Doris' blood counts were returning to normal.
"We believed in miracles," Doris says. "We serve a great God."
For the first time in memory, the Tryons made plans. They wanted to travel to Alaska and back home to Indiana.
Those plans ended on December 18.
Fred was sitting at the kitchen table. He said he didn't feel well.
"He went into the bedroom, and I got down on my knees. He placed his head on my shoulder and passed out. I knew it was his heart," Doris says.
She called paramedics; a small army of Fred's friends and family accompanied him to the hospital.
"They told us he wasn't going to make it through surgery," Doris says.
Two hours later, Fred Tryon was dead.
Now Doris is alone, for the first time in 45years.
But she's not just burdened with the sorrow of losing a husband. She's also facing nearly $20,000 in medical bills related to attempts to save Fred's life.
By taking work where he could find it, Fred had been able to keep his wife insured. But he couldn't afford medical insurance for himself after APS unilaterally redefined his retirement. He died 12 days before he would have become eligible for Medicare.
APS also is withholding payment of a life insurance policy, saying Fred waived the policy when he "quit."
Fred Tryon never made a fuss over the loss of his APS benefits, and his union didn't learn what happened until last month.
Since Fred's sudden death, however, Doris Tryon has contacted APS personnel officials. She wants to know why she and Fred were dropped from the insurance plan, and why no death benefits have been paid.
Doris says that Lorraine Harris, the APS benefits manager who first told Fred he could retire with full benefits, now says Fred quit.
"She said, 'I spoke to your husband several times, and he fully understood that he had been terminated, and he was not retiring,'" Doris says Harris told her.
That explanation doesn't sit well with Doris, and it is refuted both by documents and by common sense. Why, Doris wonders, would the company give Fred a gold watch for retiring if he had really just quit? If he quit, why has APS said it will begin paying pension benefits to Doris next month? Why did the company send letters outlining Fred's retirement benefits if he hadn't retired?
And if Fred did agree to cancel his company life insurance policy, why, Doris wonders, hasn't APS offered documentation of the waiver?
In a recent interview, Harris said Fred Tryon wasn't eligible for retirement benefits when he left APS because he "didn't have enough years of service."
Pressed for further details, Harris declined to elaborate.
But co-workers say Fred Tryon would never have retired early from APS if he knew the company was going to cut his medical benefits. His primary reason for seeking a job at APS, they say, was to gain medical coverage for his sick wife.
"Benefits were number one to Fred," Mike Robbins says. "He was not going to terminate himself early and lose those health benefits."
Fred Jordan was a neighbor of and a coworker with Fred Tryon. He says Tryon described his discussions with APS personnel officials before deciding to retire. Tryon was very excited when he learned that he could retire early and receive the benefits immediately, Jordan says.
"I know for a fact that Fred would not have retired early if he thought he wasn't going to get anything," Jordan says. "They told him he would receive something, and he retired. Then they told him they made a mistake, and you're not going to get anything.
"My feeling was that was pretty chickenshit."
Doris Tryon isn't asking APS for much.
She wants only what was promised her husband, and nothing more.
"They need to live up to their original agreement and provide what they told him he would get," Doris says.
Then she pauses in her needlepoint.
"I'm not doing this because I think this is an easy way for a fast buck," she says. "I'm doing this for Fred.
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