Wednesday, March 27, 1996
Jonathan's future imperiled by bankruptcy

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jonathan is a 6-year-old boy trapped in a 22-year-old man's body.

He doesn't know about bankruptcy courts, bad debts, debentures, trust funds and going-out-of-business sales.

All he wants to do is sing his favorite hymn, ''Amen,'' write his name and play with his classmates at the special school he attends in Frankfort, Ky.

What Jonathan wants and what he's going to do may be two different things.

In two months, his parents could be out of money. And, this lanky, mentally handicapped man who delights in printing his name backward may have to leave a school where his fellow students laugh with him instead of at him.

Jonathan's last name is Swallen.

You know that name. It used to be associated with good deals from a frill-free hometown chain of discount stores.

Today, the Swallen's name is more often followed by the phrase ''out of business.'' Stores padlocked without warning. Another revered local business gone belly-up. The fortunes of its employees and its founding family - as well as the money of many loyal customers - wiped out.

More than money

Jonathan's dilemma is just one of hundreds of sad stories in the downsized, competitive 1990s. Only with him, the victim is helpless. And that's also how his parents feel.

Jonathan is the son of Norma Goins and her former husband, Dale Swallen.

''I think so much about this,'' says Norma. ''I can hardly think about it anymore. I've helped this boy with every problem he's ever had. I've hugged him and tried to make things right. Now, I can't. And, I hate it.''

Until he left Swallen's in April, Dale was the vice president of warehousing, distribution and delivery. Pat Swallen, Dale's late father, founded the firm in his basement.

Before he died in 1988, Pat set up trust funds for his grandchildren. Dale invested Jonathan's funds in Swallen's bonds called debentures. They paid 13 percent interest. A nice return from the family business.

For the past seven years, the bonds covered the bulk of the $1,700 a month it costs to send Jonathan to the Stewart Home School in Frankfort.

When Swallen's declared bankruptcy in October, the value of the debentures dropped. Some say they fell so low as to be worthless. After a flurry of lawsuits, they landed in legal limbo. Bottom line for Jonathan: No money for his school.

Tapped out

Most people assume vice presidents have some kind of parachute to protect them and their families when a business fails. Dale Swallen didn't.

''I know what people are thinking: 'He's got this big, huge room of money. He's just rollin' in it. He stuffs cracks with dollar bills. He rides in a limousine. He drives a Cadillac.' ''

In truth, he drives a ''little, white'' 1996 Dodge pick-up. He needs it for his new furniture repair business.

Dale is 53. Tough age for a career change. Still, he's ''desperately trying to find a job that I can at least come close to meetin' my expenses.''

So far, he hasn't taken a salary at his fix-it shop. ''There's nothing in this thing yet to pay any wages.'' So, he's working ''more or less as an errand boy.''

Norma - who gained custody of Jonathan after her marriage to Dale ended in 1980 - is an office manager for a Newtown company that fixes laundry equipment.

Short on cash, she's also not in the best of health. After open-heart surgery in 1979 and a stroke in 1988, she was ''no longer physically able to care for my precious boy at home.''

So, in 1989, Jonathan went to live at the Frankfort school.

''That's home to him,'' Dale says.

Norma says her ''gentle, loving son'' whose goal in life is ''to make everyone he meets laugh or smile'' has ''grown so much at the school, socially, mentally and physically. I must try something, anything, everything to keep him there.''

Dale and Norma want their son to stay in the school at least through May 18, for the annual Family Day Weekend.

''It's a big deal for those youngsters,'' says Dale. ''It's a highlight of their lives.''

Jonathan's looking forward to it. He has a part in the school play.

He's going to sing ''Amen.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.