In Houston, another wave of awkwardness

July 06, 2006|By HOWARD WITT

HOUSTON -- What's left of the towering legacy of the man once regarded as Houston's premier philanthropist is now tucked around the back of the prairie dog exhibit at the Houston Zoo.

There, fastened onto an obscure brown door leading to the keeper's area for the burrowing rodents, is a small plaque that reads, "A Gift from Linda and Ken Lay Family." Six years ago, Kenneth L. Lay's family foundation made a donation to the facility, although zoo officials can't recall the amount.

But nearly everywhere else, the tarnished name of the convicted Enron founder, who died yesterday at 64, has been erased from the walls and honor rolls and donor lists of this city, which would just as soon forget that Lay, and Enron, ever existed.

At the Center for Houston's Future, a civic booster group Lay helped found in 1999, Lay's name has been scrubbed from the Web site and the group's official history. At the Greater Houston Partnership, another civic group Lay once led, officials said no one who worked with Lay is around anymore to recall his legacy.

And the Ken Lay branch of the YMCA in suburban Katy, built in 2001 with a donation of at least $1 million from Lay, is no longer - Lay's name was removed last month after he was convicted May 25 on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with one of the biggest bankruptcies in American corporate history.

Lay himself wrote the YMCA board asking that his name be removed to spare the organization any embarrassment as a result of his conviction, pre-empting a board meeting where the subject was due to be discussed.

Lay's death, like the fraud trial and conviction that preceded it, provoked yet another wave of awkwardness in a city that once embraced him as "Mr. Houston." Lay's resume listed more than 60 associations and nonprofit boards on which he once served.

"We knew Ken Lay as a dedicated board member and volunteer. We didn't know him the way other people say they do," said Trazanna Moreno, spokeswoman for the YMCA of Greater Houston. "We're saddened by his passing. Whatever people do believe of him, he did help the YMCA to help children and families."

Famous and powerful Texans who once called Lay a friend carefully distanced themselves from him, even in death.

The Rev. Bill Lawson, a prominent Houston preacher who testified as a character witness for Lay during his trial, declined to return calls seeking comment.

President Bush, who was the recipient of large campaign donations from Enron before its demise and who nicknamed Lay "Kenny Boy," had no public comment on Lay's death.

"The president has described Ken Lay as an acquaintance," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters in Washington. "And many of the president's acquaintances have passed on during his time in office."

Meanwhile, former President George Bush, who was close to Lay, said in a statement: "It was sad to hear the news of the death of someone I considered a friend."

There was little evident gloating over Lay's demise among former Enron employees, many of whom lost their life-savings as a result of the fraud Lay was convicted of helping to perpetuate. While a few Internet bloggers, shielded by anonymity, darkly suggested that Lay might have faked his death to escape his scheduled October sentencing, many others expressed sadness that the ordeal had ended tragically.

Charles Prestwood, 67, a longtime Enron employee who lost his $1.3 million retirement savings when the company's stock collapsed, said he saw some measure of divine justice in Lay's death.

"I had been looking forward to him serving prison time, but the Lord said, `Vengeance is mine,'" said Prestwood, who said he struggles each month just to pay his bills. "Most of that good stuff that everybody gives him credit for doing, well, it's awful easy to pass out somebody else's money."

Others said that by sparing Lay and his family the ordeal of what would probably have been a long prison sentence, his death might have been a blessing in disguise.

"It has gone through my mind today that this was a merciful ending in some ways," said Robert Bradley Jr., Lay's former speechwriter. "It would have been very difficult for Ken Lay's family to be living day by day knowing their father is in jail and wondering what's going to happen to him."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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