Credit: Don Colley

On the morning of last January 11, Lacy Banks took a phone call that he believes nearly cost him his life.

It was from Sheri Stokes, a Chattanooga-based benefits specialist in the transplant department of Blue Cross Blue Shield. She told Banks, who was waiting for a new heart, that Blue Cross no longer insured him. That’s because as of December 31 he was no longer an employee of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Banks was bewildered—he’d begun six months of medical leave in October but he was still getting paychecks. And he was terrified. He immediately started calling everyone he could think of. The Chicago Newspaper Guild. Human resources at the Sun-Times. His sports editor, Chris De Luca.

Banks is one of the highest-profile unhealthy people in Chicago. A Sun-Times sportswriter for 38 years, he began blogging about his health for the paper two years ago because death had a bead on him and he and his paper believed the combat about to take place over his body and soul would make a tale worth telling.

“Last month, destiny dealt me a triple dose of trauma,” he wrote on May 5, 2008, introducing his subject. “Doctors . . . diagnosed three big problems: Brain cancer, which might require surgery. End-stage congestive heart failure, which definitely requires a heart transplant. Prostate cancer, which also definitely requires surgery.

“Any one of these diagnoses is enough to drape a man with doom and gloom. But the Lord has seen fit to visit me with all three. I am a 64-year-old black man, a Sun-Times reporter for 35 years, a Baptist preacher for 55 years. I have a family history of congestive heart failure, which killed my oldest and youngest siblings, my father and an aunt, and of prostate cancer, which killed three uncles.

“Now, it’s my turn to tangle with both of those terrors, and brain cancer, too.”

Banks intended to lead the resistance. “I have promoted myself to being CEO, as best I can, of my medical dream team, where, first and foremost, God is my primary-care physician. . . . I cordially invite you all to watch God heal me. . . . It’s going to be one of the strangest, most exciting and—I hope—enlightening tales you’ll ever read.”

I read that announcement and thought, that’s the end of Lacy Banks. Brain cancer takes no prisoners, and it was not attacking alone. But the tumor inside his head turned out to be benign. The prostate cancer went into remission. As for the heart condition—Banks went on the transplant list last November. He had two great hopes for 2010—to get a new heart and to retire.

But neither had happened when he took Sheri Stokes’s call. And he had to wonder, he says, if the Sun-Times, fresh out of bankruptcy and down to a skeleton staff, had decided to cut him loose. Banks left a message on De Luca’s voice mail and took inventory. He was hyperventilating. His chest was killing him. He couldn’t breathe. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, what the hell is happening?’ I said, ‘Let me rest here and try to collect myself.’ But it wasn’t doing any good, so I called 911.” Then he called his wife, Joyce.

“She said, ‘Go to the hospital.’ I said, ‘I want to go straight to Northwestern. South Suburban isn’t that sophisticated. She said, ‘Go to the hospital.'” But when the paramedics arrived and said they could only take him to South Suburban, the hospital nearest his home in Hazelcrest, Banks put up an argument and finally told them to leave. He says, “I was going to tough it out and drive to the University of Chicago hospital, or Northwestern, whichever came first. But not five minutes later I collapsed. I called them back and said, ‘OK, take me to South Suburban.'”

When he got there they called in a cardiologist who shocked his heart to bring it under control, and then a helicopter carried him to where he’d wanted to go in the first place, Northwestern. “I was on life support for three days,” he says. “In a coma. The tubes down the throat. Everything.” His family gathered round. A daughter flew in from Atlanta. But Banks lived. When the cardiologists told him he needed a heart pump implanted, Banks, ever the CEO, decided to have that done at the University of Chicago. He explains that Chicago told him he could drive again in a couple weeks, whereas Northwestern insisted he give up driving altogether.

Banks came home February 10 and went back to work in April. By then Blue Cross was telling him—and the Sun-Times was telling him—that it had been a mistake about his not working for the paper any longer. It was a mistake, Banks tells me, nobody will take responsibility for; but he has his suspicions. Who, he asks, could have told Blue Cross that Banks had left the Sun-Times but the Sun-Times? (A human resources official at Sun-Times Media didn’t return my phone calls.)

Going through the mail that had piled up at home, he came across a January 22 letter from Prudential Retirement telling him how to “initiate your retirement benefit.” He had some $373,000 in his pension plan, and Prudential had various options for doling it out to him. Banks wasn’t sure how long he had to live, so the one he liked best was a lump-sum payout he could convert to front-loaded annuities. He reckoned that if he lived ten more years, at the end of them the best of Prudential’s alternatives would have cost him some $70,000.

The letter gave Banks 90 days to apply for the lump sum. He took his time. “I wanted to study all my options,” he tells me. “I went to my financial advisers and I had an annuity program all set up.” Prudential received his paperwork on April 7, he says. But the same day or the day before, he says, he got another letter from Prudential that changed everything. Again Prudential laid out his options—but this time a lump sum wasn’t one of them. Under a new law, he found out, the new deadline to apply for that had been January 1.

A lay preacher, Banks often signs his letters “Rev. Lacy C. Banks.” His is a fighting faith. Lewis Grizzard came north from Georgia to run the Sun-Times sports department in 1975, and when he spiked some of Banks’s stories and took away a column he was writing, Banks sized him up as a racist and said so to a friend at the Defender. The friend promptly wrote a story, Banks refused to apologize, and he was fired. The Newspaper Guild intervened, a federal arbitrator ruled for Banks, and 13 months later he got his job back. Grizzard soon left the Sun-Times and went back south, and before his death won fame and fortune as a regional humorist. In his 1990 book, If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground, Grizzard regaled readers with a wildly self-indulgent rendering of the Banks affair. He misspelled Banks’s first name, said Banks owed his job to affirmative action, and recalled his own farewell speech:

“‘Some of you, it has been a pleasure to work with. Others of you, it has not been. And one of you has been an incredible pain in the ass.’ With that, Lacey J. Banks got out of his chair, walked over to me, and stuck out his hand. I shook it.”

Banks told me when the book came out that he didn’t remember Grizzard saying anything like that. Yet there’s a ring of verity to “pain in the ass.”

Thomas Gardiner is Banks’s attorney. An expert on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), he was recommended to Banks by his financial advisers. In a June e-mail to Gardiner, Banks laid out the situation and asked for answers. What was behind the January 22 phone call that put him in the hospital? Why had a lump-sum payment been offered and then retracted? And why could the Sun-Times honor a colleague’s request for a lump sum but deny his own?

That colleague was sportswriter Len Ziehm, who retired in June. He tells me his pension was paid him in full.

Gardiner looked into Banks’s situation and reported back on August 10 with bad news. The “emotional distress” Banks had experienced upon getting Stokes’s call from Blue Cross wasn’t a cause for legal action unless it could be proved the distress was “intentionally inflicted.” Gardiner didn’t think it could be. ERISA law seemed to rule out lump-sum payments after January 1, though there was some gray area that might support a claim. As for the argument that what’s fair for Len Ziehm is fair for Lacy Banks, Ziehm had been interviewed, and “he mentioned that he expected he received the payment before January 1, 2010.”

But Ziehm told Banks (and would tell me) that he didn’t even apply for it until “late January or early February.” Gardiner hadn’t interviewed Ziehm personally, and Ziehm says Beth Johnson, the associate who had, got his story wrong.

Making sure Gardiner realized that, Banks didn’t let diplomacy get the better of him.

“Now, I can understand why people are afraid to drop a dime against crime,” Banks wrote back. “We already know that the main reason neither Julius, the Roman Caesar, nor Jesus, the Messianic Christ, never got due process or a fair trial because of the triumphant treachery of Brutus and Judas. With friends like Brutus and Judas, who needs enemies? The question to me in this situation is who are my Brutus and Judas. I certainly don’t believe it to be Len Ziehm, a man I’d trust with my wife or life. Never have I ever been so painfully, and perhaps masterfully, stabbed in the back by anybody up close.”

Banks went on, “I’d rather have a coward than a back-stabber in the fox hole with me any time. At least, I won’t have to waste valuable trust on a coward.”

Gardiner (who declined my request for comment) replied to Banks simply that “we need to discuss this in detail with Beth Johnson joining the call.” But Banks wanted Ziehm in on it too, and as he was in Wisconsin covering the PGA tournament for the Sun-Times as a freelancer, and Banks was about to go on vacation, that discussion hasn’t taken place.

Ziehm, frankly, wants out, not in. Yes, he says, Lacy Banks is a friend of his. But he’s a friend Ziehm’s not particularly happy with at the moment. “He’s kind of dragging me into this thing,” said Ziehm. “The Sun-Times treated me just fine. I don’t understand where he’s coming from. My retirement has nothing to do with him. Now my retirement information is out there for public discussion, and it’s nobody’s business but my own.”

On his blog, Banks is letting it all hang out. “Serious pension problems assure that this will not be a happy birthday for me as I approach retirement of my 45-year reporting career at the end of this year . . . ,” he wrote on August 11. “I thank God that I have been able to work as a professional writer for 45 years and have qualified for a pension, social security and Medicare. But having a $72,000 bite taken from my pension after it had been promised is no happy springboard toward living on a fixed income threatened by exorbitant medical bills.

“So I worry. I struggle to retrieve the pension first promised me. Friends promise to help me with valuable information before reneging on the promises. Lawyers appear stagnant in aggressively defending me.”

What friends reneged on what? I asked. “A couple of [Chicago Newspaper Guild] people promised to help me and they backed off,” Banks said. “They talked the talk and didn’t walk the walk. Our union is extremely weak now.”

It is, of course. A toothless contract was what James Tyree demanded before he bought the bankrupt Sun-Times Media Group last fall. But executive director Tom Thibeault says pensions are “out of our hands” because as of August 12, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal body created by the ERISA Act of 1974 to protect underfunded pensions, controls and guarantees the various Sun-Times plans, which have only $55.8 million in assets against $106.5 million in benefit liabilities. Jeffrey Speicher, a PBGC spokesman, explained to me that the 2006 Pension Protection Act forbids companies in bankruptcy or with grossly underfunded pension plans from issuing lump-sum pension payouts. The law made one exemption: pension plans that, like Banks’s, had been collectively bargained. In their case, lump sums could still be paid out—until this January 1.

Now Lacy Banks’s pension is the PBGC’s problem. And Speicher says PBGC has had an unyielding policy since 1974—no lump sums. They deplete asset pools that are far too small to begin with.

Somehow Len Ziehm lucked out. Lacy Banks didn’t. I’m not sure there’s a way from where he is now to a triumphal ending.

“I guess, yes Mike, I am a pain in the ass to anybody who makes me a promise and tries to renege on it,” he tells me. “Anybody who lies to me or anybody who tries to violate my human rights, my civil rights, damn, my union rights, I’m going to be a pain in their ass, their nose, every orifice that exists in their body.”   v

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