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American Notebook: The Agents of Route US 66

Those two words are enough to start anyone dreaming. Cobbled together from small town main streets, unpaved roads, two-lane thoroughfares and four-lane highways, the Mother Road still winds its way through America’s towns and cities, feeding the dreams of the American people.

By Amy S. Friedman

Those two words are enough to start anyone dreaming. Cobbled together from small town main streets, unpaved roads, two-lane thoroughfares and four-lane highways, the Mother Road still winds its way through America’s towns and cities, feeding the dreams of the American people.

What were, and are, the lives, the work and the dreams of agents and advisors in the cities and towns along Route 66? Advisor Today went on the road to find out. Come with us, and meet the agents and advisors of Route 66…

Off to St. Clair
At 3 a.m. the Sunday morning I was to start driving, a blinding flash of light and a bomb-like thunderclap forced its way into my sleeping brain. By 8 a.m., the resulting storm had already dumped 14 inches of rain on the area surrounding St. Louis, where I began. Fortunately, by 11 a.m., the rains had stopped, the floodwaters were receding, and I was on my way southwest to St. Clair, Missouri-my first scheduled stop.

The flood scenes I saw that morning on the television newscasts were no exaggeration: Passing a motorcycle dealership, I saw a fellow wading nearly hip-deep in water across the display yard. I could only imagine the scene in the outlying areas.

Driving from St. Louis to St. Clair, I saw few signs of Missouri’s thriving Route 66 nostalgia industry. And St. Clair certainly isn’t part of it yet. The Chamber of Commerce web site for the population 4,000 town hasn’t a whisper of its identity as a Route 66 town. But like many smaller towns, its residents show a particular pride of place.

And this pride of place was evident in my conversation with semi-retired life agent and Missouri native Bill C. Goforth, who has spent the past 44 years of his life in St. Clair. At a Hardee’s just a few blocks from the Route, where I met and spoke with him and his wife, several patrons (who were also his clients) came to our tables to chat with his wife and kid him about being interviewed by a big-city reporter.

The Goforths first came to St. Clair in the early 1960s, right after Bill graduated from college, for his first teaching job. When they first arrived, St. Clair was a thriving independent industrial town. “There were lots of big factories here-mostly making shoes-and that’s where most of the residents worked,” he says. But the factories started closing down in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Around that time, with four growing children to feed, Goforth, over his wife’s objections (“I had a bad impression of insurance agents,” she says), began to supplement his income from teaching and part-time construction by selling insurance part-time. As many agents traditionally have, he came into the business by taking over a neighbor’s insurance practice. “It was easier-I didn’t have to build my own practice,” he said.

At first, he worked with families, selling mostly $1,000 to $2,000 face value burial policies and some income replacement policies. “Most folks couldn’t afford more than just burial insurance, so that’s what I sold them,” he said. By 1986, he’d retired from teaching and was full-time with Modern Woodmen of America, but by 1992, he’d gone back to being a part-time agent, because he didn’t want to be pushed to fill rising quotas-a sore point with him. “I live here-I have to keep my relationships with these folks,” he says. “I don’t want my clients to be spending more than they can afford on a policy. The average person buys seven policies in a lifetime-I want to be sure they buy the right ones.”

His career as an agent has never really been an easy one. At times, he says, he did try to sell disability and cash value insurance, but he had a lot of trouble getting his very self-reliant clients to look at either product. “They just didn’t feel they needed [disability]-they believed nothing was ever going to happen to them,” he says. And on the cash value side, he says he couldn’t get his clients to see insurance as anything but short-term income replacement.

Today, St. Clair has industry again-plants manufacturing gear motors, doing die cast, and one that makes Pam spray are now located in town-but Goforth says the jobs available at these plants are generally lower-paid than what people can get elsewhere. So he is still selling burial policies (although at much higher face values than he used to), and helping his clients invest their 401(k) money. He also says he’s selling far more life policies than he used to-40% of what he now sells is term. “I’m working with the children of most of the families I sold to 30 years ago,” he says.

And although he refers to himself as semi-retired, he’s still in the business, and is even finding himself fielding recruitment attempts. But his children have not opted to follow in his footsteps. “They were more interested in the construction work I did, so they all wound up working in that field,” he says.

The jaunt to Joplin
After bidding the Goforths adieu, I hopped back into my rented Alero and started the long southwesterly drive to Joplin. About 15 minutes down I-44 from St. Clair, signs of central Missouri’s well-oiled Route 66 nostalgia industry began to crop up. Route 66 nostalgia makes for brisk business in towns such as Cuba, Rolla and Waynesboro, as well as along the frontage roads: Billboards, gift shops, restaurants, bars and gas stations make sure the traveler knows he or she is on the Mother Road.

But a few miles past Springfield, I turned onto Missouri’s Route 96, a 15-mile section of old 66 bypasssed by I-44 that goes to Joplin. Once I turned off, barely a wisp of a 66 nostalgia industry could be seen.

About 7 miles down 96, I could see how being off the main drag could batter a community. Tiny, dilapidated husks of towns appeared. In Avilla, abandoned two-story gray structures yawned at the road like indignant ghosts. Even in the more lively towns on 96, few indicators attested to any presence of a current financial life. I didn’t see much signage indicating banks or insurance agencies (though there were a few ATM signs).

Only one city along 96, Carthage, still thrives. It’s a well-preserved Victorian-era town, where local lead and zinc mining barons of the late 19th and early 20th century built their mansions. Carthage’s central square had several quaint gift shops and business offices, the buildings on the square and its side streets were well maintained, and some insurance agents are listed in the local phone book. But as I arrived in Carthage late on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, every shop around the square was shuttered. The loitering young bloods watched my car slowly circle the square with slack surprise.

Welcome to Joplin
The fortunes of Joplin were founded on the rich lodes of lead and zinc in the area. It was a mining center from 1850, when lead was first discovered, until the mines played out in the 1950s. Today, it’s a lively, well-kept city of 45,000. The main thoroughfares are wide and well-used, the streets are clean, and folks are friendly.

Route 66 itself bisects Joplin, running through 7th Street and crossing Main Street in the center of town. 66 has always been Joplin’s main artery. But few signs of the old Road exist along Joplin’s stretch. It’s now dotted with gas stations, fast food joints and some dilapidated-looking buildings that are either abandoned or housing businesses they weren’t originally intended to house.

The one-room office of life and health agent (and lifelong Joplinite) Fred Ferguson lies just a few blocks from the intersection of Main and 7th. A trim, youthful man of 59, Ferguson sees few signs in today’s Joplin of what Route 66 used to be to the town. “It’s hard to believe 66 used to be the main street in this town,” he says, shaking his head. “We didn’t have a mall-we had a downtown, which was the old Route 66. That’s where everyone went.”

Ferguson has fond memories of growing up in a Route 66 town. When he was in his 20s, every year for vacations, he’d drive out 66 to California with his brothers and friends. He also fondly remembers the all-night “chat parties” he and his friends would throw. They’d hire a band, and gather on the 200 to 300 foot piles of chat (the fine gravel left over after ore is extracted from rock) on the outskirts of town.

Much of the chat has been used up in paving roads and filling old mine shafts, but a few piles still remain. Ferguson believes the lead dust from the chat has left a potentially deadly legacy in Joplin. “I think a lot of cancer cases around here were caused by the dust we breathe from the chat,” he says. And chat hasn’t turned out to be the best filler for old mine shafts, either-several of Joplin’s back yards and roads tend to collapse, because underground water takes away some of the filler in the old shafts. “My mother-in-law’s back yard has collapsed several times,” he says.

Joplin’s population today is up only 7,000 from what it was in the 1970s, when Ferguson first became an insurance agent. He came into the business in 1974, after 17 years in grocery wholesaling. “One of my neighbors was a MetLife district manager who’d spent years trying to get me into the business,” he says. After the company Ferguson had worked for was sold twice in two years, he decided he’d had enough, and took up his neighbor’s offer.

Although he was starting from scratch, his long tenure in the grocery business helped him have a comparatively easy time building his initial client base. “My first clients were people I’d known-people I’d worked with, customers I’d had,” he says. And before he came in, he did his homework, spending six months learning about the business and the products before making the commitment. “I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. So many people don’t,” he says.

But Ferguson came in during one of the more difficult times to become an agent-the recession of the 1970s. After the mines played out, a lot of miners had gone to work for Vickers, a local company that made car parts. Just two weeks after he’d made his switch, Vickers laid off 1,500 of its workers, which devastated several of Joplin’s insurance agents. “Two agents I knew quit, because all their clients’ policies were lapsing. They were losing commissions,” he recalls.

Still, he was determined to stick with his new career. “I’d been taught to make sure what I wrote was good, persistent business. So I made sure I called on people who had good stable jobs, and that they were making at least $200 a week,” he says. Most of what he was selling then was $5,000 and $10,000 cash value whole life policies. “Met was just starting to depart from the debit business. I was one of their first million-dollar producers in 1975,” he says.

By 1983, however, he’d left MetLife to go out on his own. “Universal life had come out, and I wanted to sell it,” he says. Business really took off for him in the 1980s: Five agents were selling for him, and he was writing about $10 million face value per year of UL, which accounted for all but 2% of his business and income. But as the decade drew to a close, more and more of his clients wanted him to look into helping them cover their health insurance needs. “It was like quicksand-the deeper I got, the more time I spent, and the more business I got,” he says.

Today, he finds himself one of the few agents in Joplin selling health insurance, which he says now provides 80% of his income and takes up almost all his time-quite a change from his high-flying 1980’s practice. His current clients, primarily individuals and small business owners, are mainly in Joplin, and he’s not looking to grow right now. “I don’t need any more business-I don’t have time to take on more!” he says, adding that he doesn’t need the headaches he had in the 1980’s. “Right now, I have a good income. I’m tired of stress, and tired of companies wanting more and more volume.”

About half of Ferguson’s health insurance clients are in small group plans (under 15 lives). He prefers working with small groups because they’re easier to service. Also, a lot of small companies don’t think they can afford to provide health coverage, and Ferguson likes to show them they can. His individual clients come from people who work for those small employers, or who are self-employed.

Competition, he says, is a real factor in town. Firms with larger employee groups will generally give their group insurance business to the large insurance brokerages in Kansas City or Springfield, rather than use a local person. And if a small group in town gets big, it becomes ripe for the plucking. “Once a group’s over 15, bigger agents and companies will try to take it away,” he says. A lot of agents come out to Joplin from Springfield and Kansas City, the two closest large cities, trolling for clients as well. “But the folks they sell to wind up coming back to me anyway,” he says, because he’s there to service them.

What’s kept Joplin going, in Ferguson’s opinion, has been the several trucking companies which have established offices in town. Two large area hospitals and some nearby manufacturing plants keep the town economically healthy as well. And with the second lowest cost of living in the U.S., people are coming to Joplin to retire. But the city’s economic health also has a downside: the traffic. “Traffic in town is unbelievable-the population in the city limits swells to 233,000 during the day,” Ferguson says. “It’s a good thing they started fixing roads and started getting away from the two-lane roads of Route 66 days.”

The heart of the route
I left Joplin at about noon via 7th Street, and started driving west. About two to three miles out of town, a turnoff from the highway took me to a very old stretch of Route 66, dating from the 1930s. A bit of concrete runs past several private homes then sweeps up onto pilings and curves over an abandoned industrial stretch. I saw several chat piles and ancient husks of industrial equipment gathering rust.

Once around that rickety-looking curve (which I drove with my heart in my mouth), I came down a gently sloping length of road to enter Galena, Kan., a quiet town no more than perhaps eight blocks square. Galena’s wide main street is filled with 19th century red brick buildings, faded signage painted directly on some of them. Its little two-lane side streets are lined mostly with trim white houses, although in a few cases, the houses sport sagging porches and peeling paint. A few ragtag shops along the main drag whispered &quo;Route 66 Memorabilia&quo; and promised far more than they delivered. Several larger emporia were shuttered.

Along the 13 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, only a few Historic Route 66 signs let you know you’re on the Mother Road. Much of what I passed was farmland, rolling green hills bordered by white fences. Once across the Kansas-Oklahoma border, the Road continues to curve and wind gently. Towns between the border and Tulsa come upon the traveler frequently, and as much of Historic 66 is State Route 66, and a State Scenic Byway as well, the road is well maintained.

Oklahoma is considered “the heart of Route 66,” but as it’s also an oil patch state, its fortunes over the last 30 years, and those of its insurance agents, have risen and fallen with those of the energy industry. Many of the 66 towns, such as Commerce (birthplace of baseball hall of famer Mickey Mantle) and Miami (pronounced Miamuh), which has done a remarkable job gussying up its Main Street, are doing fine. Vinita is also doing fine, but its main attraction is not in town, but rather on I-44 right near the exit to town. The world’s largest McDonald’s (which is actually the Tourist Information Bureau for Oklahoma) floats above I-44, its distinctive yellow arch emphatically straddling the highway.

Tulsa’s new vigor
Route 66 enters Tulsa from the east and curls through the city’s gritty urban downtown, which is currently enjoying an economic renaissance. Tulsa is well-located for economic expansion, due to its being in the center of the state as well as on the McClellan-Kerr Waterway, a man-made waterway that connects the city to what’s known as the Mississippi navigation system via the Arkansas River. Tulsa has long been working to diversify its economy away from oil and to attract new business, and that work is bearing fruit: Tulsa is now a telecommunications hub for the Midwest, and is getting some high-tech manufacturing to support it. Unemployment at 2.5% is below the national average, and about 8,000 new jobs are expected in the next year or so, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

Tulsa’s comeback is heartening, given how far it had fallen after the halcyon boom days of the 1970s and 1980s, says Oklahoma native Bob Cacy, a successful Tulsa-based estate planning life insurance specialist. Cacy, who has lived and worked in Tulsa for 33 years, started out selling insurance in college through Lincoln National’s college program. “I didn’t even want to be an agent at first,” he recalls. “But it turned out to be the best money I could make at the time and still continue my education, so I told the friend trying to recruit me, ’Sign me up!’”

In 1973, two years after graduating college, Lincoln moved Cacy to Tulsa to be a manager and recruit new agents. Finding recruits then wasn’t easy, as Tulsa was in the middle of an oil boom. “It was hard to find anyone to go into insurance-we couldn’t pay enough,” he says. But after 1977, when he’d switched to being a general agent, the oil bust began.

“It was scary,” he recalls. Several of the 700 oil company home offices then in Tulsa were abandoned, keys left for their landlords. Banks were fleeing, and as many residents had tied their money into oil wells, agents like Cacy were losing business faster than they could write it. “I knew people didn’t feel they were doing well,” he says of those times. “When they don’t feel like they can do long-term planning, they buy term insurance. I was surviving, and still primarily doing estate planning, but I was writing a lot of term insurance.”

By the late 1980s, the tide had begun to turn. Office space was cheap and plentiful and interest rates were low, so companies began to come to Tulsa, where they could pick up real estate bargains. And as energy prices began to rise, the energy support companies that had remained in Tulsa began to do better, so the town started to recover. Cacy found himself writing more and more whole life policies-which to him was a good sign for Tulsa’s future. “When people have money, they are not afraid to plan long-term-that’s when you’ll see them buying cash value policies,” he says.

Today, Cacy runs his practice from his home, selling not just insurance for estate plans, but also long-term care and disability income. His daughter works with him as well, selling home, auto, and commercial lines. He believes Tulsa is now truly back on its way. “It’s really grown since the 1970s,” he says, as the population was then about 600,000, and it’s now about 800,000. But even with Tulsa’s current resurgence, Cacy knows he’s been through the wars. “Folks like me, who stayed here, we’ve got a point of reference-we know we’ve survived something,” he says.

Sapulpa bound
Leaving Cacy’s home, I drove westward and picked up the historic route in the center of town, and tooled along until it exited Tulsa at the city’s southwest. Following the signs, I left State Route 66 and headed down an old spur of the historic route that runs alongside the Atlantic & Pacific railroad for a few miles. The road then curved past Frankoma Pottery’s factory outlet, and curved again to connect back to the State Route, which took me to East Dewey Street and the center of Sapulpa, one of Tulsa’s bedroom communities.

The 19,300-population town is named for Chief Sapulpa, a Creek chief who came to Oklahoma from Alabama in about 1850. It first burst into affluence in 1905 with the discovery of oil, but never really was a fast-growth place because the Burlington-Northern Railroad elected to put its loading facilities in Tulsa, bypassing Sapulpa. Since then, although Sapulpa has always had other industry, the town’s fortunes have waxed and waned primarily with those of the oil industry.

Sapulpa as a town did suffer somewhat after I-44 was opened, but 10 years ago, preservationists started raising money and interest in renovating the town’s main street and business center. Today, East Dewey is a pretty, tree-lined street, its well-tended old buildings bustling with commercial activity, and its outskirts trimmed with several metal fabrication factories .

Staying the traditional route
The century-old Clayton Building, one of Sapulpa’s vintage multi-story office buildings along East Dewey, is where Insurance Sales Agency, owned and operated by multiline agent Kenneth Rentz, is located. Rentz, age 62, has been in Sapulpa since the 1960s, selling life, health, auto and homeowners coverage to individuals and small business in and around town.

A genial white-haired fellow, Rentz greeted me in his wood-paneled office. Bookshelves, desks, credenzas and chairs were piled high with assorted insurance reading materials. A computer winked and blinked behind him as we talked.

Rentz, originally from Bainbridge, Ga., had followed his brother and father-in-law into the life insurance business, selling debit life policies through Liberty National just after he finished college. “It was a pretty good-paying job at the time,” he says.

In the 1960s, Liberty National promoted him to district sales manager and moved him to Sapulpa, but by 1977, he had exited the debit business to become a life general agent. In 1981, during the early throes of the oil bust, he got his property-casualty license, which he says improved his practice. Like other agents, he wants the right quality of client-“those who can pay”-and being in property-casualty helped him to do so. “P-c has gotten me in touch with some higher-income clients. Until I was in p-c, I didn’t know any millionaires, or multimillionaires,” he says.

In 1982, Rentz set up shop as Insurance Sales Agency, and has been independent ever since. Ten years ago, 70% of what he sold was life insurance, and although he wants his practice today to be 50% life, he says it’s about 70% p-c, with the remainder coming from life and group health. Over the last two to three years, he’s been selling more life insurance, most of it in term policies. “I want to provide a death benefit,” he says. “If the financial gurus want premium dollars, they can go get them.”

Today, Rentz is a committed Sapulpaite, active in civic organizations such as the Lion’s Club (which helped raise the funds to spruce up Sapulpa’s main street). He even refers to himself in unguarded moments as “an old Oklahoma boy.” He has watched the oil patch economy evolve, and sees its reflection in his practice. “There are more professionals now than 20 years ago. Then, systems and information professionals were the exception. Wages and rates of compensation have changed, too.”

And although he is eligible for Social Security, he has no current plans to retire. For the next few years, he intends to focus on selling group life, and on convincing his daughter, who currently helps out in his office, to get her insurance license. “I retired short-term a few times, but I always came back. I’ll be doing this as long as I have breath to breathe,” he says.

On to Elk City
From Sapulpa to Yukon, southeast of Oklahoma City, Route 66 passes mostly through farm country. It winds through the main streets of little towns such as Bristow and Chandler before entering Oklahoma City.

Just outside Oklahoma City, in Bethany, I hit my first traffic jam. It was close to 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, folks were driving home from work or school, and State Route 66 was the commuter highway of choice out of Oklahoma City. Bethany blends into Yukon, a former farming town that’s now an Oklahoma City bedroom community. It’s a bustling town crossed by the old Chisholm Trail, with native son country star Garth Brooks as its current claim to fame.

But a few miles west of Yukon, another Oklahoma emerges. There isn’t much to betray along this stretch of slightly crumbly two-lane highway that the year is not 1966. Jobe’s, a small roadside café dating from 1958 along Route 66 in the town of El Reno, still looks pretty much the same as it did in 1969, when the current owner bought it. Road memorabilia from a commemorative clock to old toy Texaco trucks decorates one of the walls, and the friendly waitress kept refilling my Diet Coke without my having to ask.

Between El Reno and Elk City, Route 66 mostly parallels I-40, weaving in and out of several towns, including Clinton, the site of the state’s official Route 66 museum, and Foss, an official Oklahoma Ghost Town. As it was getting dark and I was driving alone, and as few sections of 66 are lit at night, I joined up with I-40 about five miles west of El Reno, and sped along to Elk City to find a place to bunk down for the night.

In the family business
The following morning, I tooled into town to find Schachle Insurance Agency, a three-person agency with Farmers Insurance Group owned by agent Michael Schachle. I was starting to get used to the slower pace of small-town America: It was nice to be able to drive slowly down the streets looking for my destination without being honked impatiently from behind. Intent on my hunt, I managed not to spot an 80-foot working oil rig right on Route 66, on the corner of the block where the agency is located.

Elk City was originally a frontier town, and today it is a well-kept middle-class burg of about 12,000 located approximately 40 miles from Oklahoma’s western border with Texas. Its road-based businesses took a hit in the 1970s when the interstate opened, and the energy gyrations served it some slow years in the 1980s. Today, however, the town is thriving-several small businesses, including restaurants that don’t serve fast food and the official National Route 66 museum, line its main street (which is a section of Historic Route 66). And the local Chamber of Commerce’s decision to solicit companies to move to Elk City is also bearing fruit: The town has recently attracted new industry, and a major cancer treatment center, Great Plains Regional Hospital, has been in town for the past few years as well.

With this business revival, Elk City’s population is also on the rise. People are moving there for jobs, and with the lower cost of living and slower pace of life, former residents who are now retired are coming home. This is having the unusual side effect of improving the funeral business-there were 80 funerals this past year, versus 40 last year.

The people of Elk City are friendly, open, and town-proud, and Michael Schachle, a quiet, easygoing fellow, is no exception. Schachle is not only the agency’s current owner, he’s also the third generation of Schachles to sell insurance in town. His grandfather started in 1936 as one of the first agents in the area, and Schachle’s father joined the agency in 1950.

Now 48, Schachle came into the family agency 20 years ago, but like many baby boom generation agents, he didn’t start out in insurance. For his first 10 years after college, he was a manager with a J.C. Penney in Duncan, a small town near the southwest Oklahoma city of Lawton. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunity in the 1970s. If you wanted opportunity, you had to move,” he says. But he’d thought about insurance off and on, and in 1980, he came home to join his father in the agency.

The 1980s, he says, were interesting times in Elk City. The energy boom hit town right about then with the discovery of some large natural gas fields are in the area-later than in the rest of Oklahoma. And the boom had a definite effect on the town’s economy. “We were just a farming community before we hit gas. Lots of people came in”-the population swelled to 15,000-“and lots of people got into rig deals.”

The boom also put The Schachle Agency, which had originally sold only property-casualty, into the business of selling life and annuity products, and of providing financial planning advice as well. “Little old people were getting $30,000 checks, and they were worried sick-they remembered the last boom, in the 1940s and 1950s, and knew it could bust just as easily,” he says. Several of these older folks came to the Schachles for help. And although Michael says they tried to steer these older folks to annuities, in several cases, they preferred to go to the banks. “They like access to their money-they went down and got CD’s,” he says.

When things went bust, many of the newcomers left for potentially greener pastures in Texas and Oklahoma City, Schachle says. And for the next four years, Elk City tried to get over the shock. During the boom, “everyone was blowin’ and goin’, but after it was over, people had nothing but time. People got more down to earth,” he says.

Today, Schachle runs the multiline agency, and has done so on his own since his father passed away in 1991. He specializes in p-c and securities sales, and his sister Barbara, a 21-year agent, is the life and health specialist. Another of Schachle’s 12 siblings, a brother, sells investments in Oklahoma City. The agency has also been selling long-term care for the past two years. “People had gone to the AARP to buy, but they couldn’t get the same service they could with us, so they came back to us anyway,” he says. He’s also selling a lot of universal life to families he works with that are looking for a savings plan, and is gearing up to sell more securities. Farmers Insurance, he says, recognizes its agents have to compete with reps of regional securities brokerages such as E.D. Jones, which has a branch in Elk City.

Although financial services is the family business, Schachle doesn’t yet sound optimistic that a fourth generation of Schachles will sell insurance in Elk City. His daughter, he says, helped for a while, but as she has little ones at home, her time is limited. His son, now 22, is more interested in the investment side of the financial services business right now. “He loves to sell,” says Schachle, a bit hopefully. But at this point, he knows he’s got nothing but time. “You need a little touch of gray to work with my kind of market,” he says.

Advising in Amarillo
When I drove across the border into Texas, the vista seemed to change… to become rawer, dustier, harsher. I passed through several old towns barely eking along on 66 tourism, including Alanreed, Groom and Conway, before reaching Amarillo, the largest and one of the oldest cities in the North Texas panhandle.

Amarillo had its genesis as a North Texas railroading, cattle-trading and merchandising town, and it’s still surrounded by working ranches. Though the 110-year-old city took its hit during the 1980s oil bust, it has battled its way back to prosperity. Today, parts of Amarillo have taken on that gleaming, jagged urban sprawl look visible anywhere the economy is lively: New office buildings stuffed with small businesses, franchises and branch offices of out-of-town companies line I-40’s frontage road. But just a few blocks away, not far from the original 66, little houses one atop the other jam residential streets pitted with potholes.

Over the last 10 years, what spurred Amarillo’s growth was its push to diversify its economy. When oil went bust, the oil service jobs left and never came back. But in 1990, a 0.25% sales tax was passed to attract and develop business in town. As a result, several small- to mid-sized businesses have been attracted to the city, the most recent coup being Bell Helicopter’s decision a year ago to bring its Opsrey helicopter plant to Amarillo. The population reflects this improved business climate as well, having grown by about 20,000 to about 188,000 in the last decade.

ReliaStar agent and financial advisor Mark Haworth, age 47 and a lifelong Amarillan, has a background that bears some similarities to that of other agents along Route 66. Insurance was the family business, but in his case, it skipped a generation. His grandfather had been a banker and an insurance agent during the Depression, according to Mark’s younger brother Kirk, who is also an advisor in Mark’s practice. Kirk tells a story of their granddad accepting a chicken for some insurance premiums from clients who lacked the cash to pay.

Elder brother Mark hasn’t had nearly that kind of struggle in his career. When he got out of college as a finance major 25 years ago, unlike others his age, he started in insurance right away, selling $10,000 to $25,000 whole life policies to his classmates. For years, his life practice was made up of small business people who also needed IRAs and health insurance. Even though he got nipped in the heels by the oil bust, losing $40,000 of his own money in an ill-advised investment, he says his practice wasn’t too scarred by the bust.

About four years ago, Haworth started steering his practice away from life insurance and toward financial planning and investments, via seminar selling. He uses Successful Money Management Seminars, owned by ReliaStar, to find his clients, putting on four seminars a year and following up with the attendees. He still prefers to work with small business people-franchise owners, equipment sellers and the like-but because of these seminars, he’s more involved with retirement rollovers these days. “In 1980, my contemporaries were having kids. Now the kids are getting out of college. That’s why I’m selling VUL and Roth IRA’s. People are saving money,” he says.

Half of his income now comes from mutual fund sales, and much the other half from life insurance (primarily term), with health insurance picking up the rest. He sees himself more as a salesperson than a service person, and working in investments rather than the very service-intensive health insurance market suits him fine. “I like easy cases-simple people with simple problems. They think I’m a hero,” he says.

Amarillo’s expanding economy has allowed Haworth to specialize far more than can agents in smaller Route 66 towns. And he is optimistic about his city’s economic future, particularly about plans afoot to develop I-27 (the Amarillo-Lubbock highway) as a possible piece of a future second Mexico-Canada route. With all the shipping traffic generated by NAFTA that comes out of Mexico and goes through east Texas on I-35, he thinks west Texas could use another route. “It would boost the economy here if it happens,” he says.

Tucumcari Tonite!
About half an hour west of Amarillo is a bit of Route 66 kitsch: The famous (at least among Route 66 cognoscenti) Cadillac Ranch. Consisting of 10 classic Caddies buried nose down about 100 yards from the road, tail fins to the skies and decorated in Early Subway Graffiti, it’s a sight guaranteed to raise a smile.

Driving west to the New Mexico border, the land spools on relentlessly, flat and dusty, redolent of cow when the wind stirs up. The sun set through the dust in a spectacular red ball, disappearing below the horizon in a slow wink. Night fell, a sudden inky curtain, before twilight had a chance to gather.

Few towns with any life left remain on that North Texas’ Route 66 stretch. Vega, midway to the border, barely flickers, and Glenrio, an old railroad town set right on the Texas-New Mexico border, has been completely abandoned, inhabited (rumor has it) only by a pack of wild dogs. As I drove, trucks trimmed with glittering lights rolled eastward, one after the other, gaudy Tinkertoys in the ebony night. And the lyric from Lowell George’s mournful rig-driving song “Willin’” (And I been from Tucson to Tucumcari…) kept drifting through my head.

Tucumcari is the first town of any consequence encountered along Route 66 after leaving Amarillo, and it’s a good three-hour drive west. Originally founded in 1902 as a railroad town, Tucumcari (which had been known as Six-Shooter Siding) has long been considered a classic Route 66 town. For decades, it’s beckoned to drivers with billboards saying “Tucumcari Tonite-2,000 Rooms.” Today, even though the town is neither as large nor as vibrant as it was in Route 66’s heyday, it’s still considered a well-preserved treasure by Road historians. Its wide main drag still has several of the same shops, diners and motels it had half a century ago (although a little tattered around the edges). Still, the city bustles with activity-folks cruise up and down Tucumcari Boulevard (historic Route 66), or stop in to eat at one of its several non-fast food restaurants.

In 1982, Tucumcari’s population was up at about 8,000, but after the local section of I-40 opened, residents say the town took a real beating. Some worry that with Union Pacific Railroad’s recent closure of the Tucumcari freight depot, the town may lose even more jobs, and the population, currently at 6,500, might drop even farther.

But residents are proud of the town, determined to keep its history alive and optimistic they can make it thrive once again. Efforts to fund improvements for the town reflect that optimism. Bond issues have been passed over the past several years to rebuild public schools and spruce up Tucumcari Boulevard (recently renamed Route 66), and residents started paying an additional 0.125% tax at the beginning of this year to fund the town’s economic development.

So far, some trucking businesses have set up shop in town, and the local Greater Economic Development Corporation is scouting aggressively for new investment and new business activity, and a new dinosaur museum was built with locally raised funds to house fossils found in the area, just opened. In addition, New Mexico’s Scenic Byways program has erected a striking Route 66 sculpture (seen on the first page of this story) near the edge of town.

Native son
One of the Tucumcari’s strongest boosters is 48-year-old Ron Sanders, a multiline State Life agent and born-and-bred Tucumcarian with deep family roots in the area. On the day I visited, a hot, dry wind-90 degrees and 50 mph-blew through streets and around corners.

Selling insurance is also part of the Sanders family tradition: His father was also a multiline agent in Tucumcari for 25 years until his retirement five years ago. And Sanders himself has been one for 23 years, 17 of which he spent working with his dad.

For Sanders, like some of the other agents along Route 66, going into the family business wasn’t part of his original career plan. As a young man, he served part of a tour of duty in Viet Nam-a tour cut short by a broken neck suffered in an auto accident during one of his visits home. “At least I didn’t have to serve the rest of my tour,” he says ruefully. Fortunately, he recovered completely, and in his early 20’s he moved to Wisconsin with his wife for about five years, where he worked in his father-in-law’s hardware store. But in 1977, he returned home and asked his father if he could join him in his agency. “My dad had been offering to me for years that I could come work with him, and when I finally asked, he said, ’Yeah, come in Monday.’”

Working together, the Sanderses sold (and Ron still sells) life, health, disability, home and auto insurance. Clients are farmers and ranchers as well as urban professionals such as city managers, doctors and lawyers. Sanders’ philosophy, which he got from his father, has always been to educate the prospects-“We try to get them to come in and tell us what their needs are, and then show them what they can do,” he says. But he says he is careful about what he sells. “We don’t want them to buy what they can’t afford.”

Business, Sanders says, was fine when he first started out. “We had a thriving trucking industry, and the railroad was going strong,” he says. But after the interstate opened in 1982, and downtown Tucumcari took a hit, worries began. “A lot of people were afraid the downtown was going to die,” he says. “We’d get in trucking companies, but they’d leave.” The practice also took a hit, as it was harder to find clients. But they continued to work, and in the 1980s, the agency thrived, he says. “It’s never been a matter of finding clients, but a matter of selling,” he says.

Five years ago, after Sanders’s father retired, Ron was determined to win the local State Farm appointment. But despite 17 years selling for them, he was not a shoo-in. “I had to compete just like anyone else,” he says.

Today, Sanders says that on the life side, he’s selling a lot of term and universal life. But his practice may soon be undergoing a slight shift, due to State Farm’s recent move into having its agents market banking products. Sanders and his staff were just trained by State Farm to sell these products, and he intends to treat them as an extension of his product line. “We want to offer them as a service for our policyholders,” he says. But he doesn’t know if he will see any business from these products. “I’ve talked to my clients about it,” he says. “Some are content with their banks, some may switch.”

Competition is also an issue, as, like in other Route 66 towns. Agents come in from Albuquerque and prospect, and direct marketers are also gaining a foothold. But Sanders, whose customers are from Tucumcari and all over the state, as well as in Arizona and Nevada, is confident. “State Farm’s reputation is great, and I have my reputation, and my dad’s,” he says.

And even though he is concerned about the impact of the train depot’s closing, he is still optimistic about Tucumcari’s economic future. NAFTA-generated shipping traffic currently comes through Tucumcari on I-54 from El Paso. And as recent moves have been made to pass laws that would limit truckers’ hours, Sanders believes Tucumcari-an eight- to 12-hour drive from El Paso-would probably be a logical stopping point for truckers...as it once was for railroad crews.

But he understands that Tucumcari still has a ways to go. His two daughters left home to attend college in Texas, and neither intends to come back. “They love Tucumcari, but there’s no opportunity for them here,” he says.

Across the Great Divide
Departing from Tucumcari, I headed to Albuquerque to find a place to sleep before making the next morning’s trek to Gallup. Along this stretch, Route 66 has had several incarnations. The driver can either go straight-shot, or detour on an old alignment up to Santa Fe, and still be on Route 66. I had originally intended to take the old alignment, but the Los Alamos fires erupted as I was driving west, and I was told by several folks not to do so. I watched an ashy haze settle over the area as I drove west.

Early the next morning, I loaded up the car and headed west once again. My destination was Gallup, N.M., my last scheduled stop. New Mexico’s landscape changes completely once west of Albuquerque: It’s miles and miles of red clay, as far as the eye can see, from which rise unearthly mesas, looking like majestic stalagmites. Scrubby dots of vegetation let the geologically savvy know one is driving across what was, millions of years ago, seafloor.

Some of the smaller towns along this stretch of 66, such as Laguna, Grants and Thoreau are still alive, but others, even though they are I-40’s frontage roads, are little more than a gas station, a (frequently abandoned) saloon, and maybe a post office. Life seems raw along this patch: You can drive 50 miles without seeing any signs of human life except the occasional truck stop, interstate traffic, freight trains hauling cargo, and the occasional woman on horseback. Flat segments vie with long hilly stretches dotted with Elk Crossing (and the occasional Cow Crossing) signs. Other signs warning of possible high winds, windsocks attached, perch on curves rounding some mountain roads.

About an hour and a half after I crossed the Continental Divide, I pulled into Gallup, an old railhead and coal mining town that dates to 1881. Route 66, its main drag, runs along the north edge of town, parallel to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe tracks, and is still called Route 66. Two freight trains chugged by, railcars brimming with coal from the two local mines.

Gallup, population 20,000, is a lively town: Plenty of people, both who live and work in town and from the three nearby Indian reservations, were out and about that sunny Friday afternoon, shopping, eating lunch and running errands.

There’s been little new business development along Gallup’s section of Route 66, except perhaps all the fast-food joints, but the town seems to be just fine. Several venerable pawnshops, the major commerce hubs for residents of the local Zuni, Navajo and Hopi reservations, line Route 66, chockablock with Native goods both held in pawn and for sale. Art galleries and wholesale Navajo rug shops do a brisk business as well. Zimmerman’s, an authentic old-fashioned dry goods store on the Route, seemed imported from half a century ago, its dark wooded interior containing everything from authentic cowboy hats and boot jeans to sewing notions and ladies’ clothes.

The clean residential streets of this very hilly town are lined with pretty little well-tended white and adobe houses, set comfortably close to one another.

Gallup’s challenges
Still, Gallup is not the easiest market in which to work. Mark C. Gartner, to all appearances the quintessential lanky, laconic Westerner, is a Gallup-based independent life agent affiliated with The Reliant Group, a producer group out of El Paso, Texas. Now age 64, he’s lived in Gallup since 1961, and came into the insurance business as a retirement plan specialist about 14 years ago. “At the time, I was doing real estate and other things, but a friend retired and asked me to take over his business,” he says.

Most of his practice consists of small group health, life, and 403(b) plans for small business, and for individuals, universal life, 20-30 year level term life, health coverage, Medicare supplemental and mutual funds.

According to Gartner, Route 66’s de-accessioning didn’t really affect the economic life of the town much, as it has always been more economically self-sufficient than other small towns along the Route. Historically, Gallup’s economy was based on the railroad, coal mining, and commerce with local reservation populations. It’s both a place of affluence-fortunes have been made from the Indian jewelry crazes (the most recent one in the 1970s) as well as from mining-and a place of poverty, because of the surrounding reservation lands.

Being an insurance agent or advisor in Gallup isn’t an easy ride, especially if you’re not multiline. And even if you are multiline, Gartner says, much of the property-casualty business in town is rated substandard, so you need to be backed by the companies through which you sell. For Gartner, several elements make being an agent in Gallup a challenge. As in other towns, big-city competition is a factor-“agents from Albuquerque and Phoenix come here in droves,” he says-and although local agents have the advantage of knowing the townspeople, outsiders are making inroads in the available life and mutual fund business.

And with health costs now rising quickly, Gartner is seeing HMO plans, which had been the bulk of his business, on the decline. “People are moving to other kinds of health plans, and local hospitals are starting their own HMO’s,” he says. He still gets a lot of individual clients from the group health plans he’s sold and he’s currently moving his practice toward the life and pension side, selling more term and universal life and 403(b) plans. He doesn’t sell many 401(k), because the business isn’t really in town. Two of the three main employers in town are nonprofits-the hospital and the local Bureau of Indian Affairs office. The third major industry is energy-in addition to the two coal mines, there are also two oil and gas refineries.

The local reservations as a market are also not easy to crack. The Navajos come to Gallup to shop, sell and pawn, but much of their available group business, he says, goes to agents in Arizona, probably because most of the reservation’s land is in Arizona. Navajos also consider talking about death and dying taboo, which makes selling life insurance to individuals tribe members nearly impossible. “They don’t want to think about it, and you can’t talk to them about it,” he says. And as tribespeople know they’ll be taken care of when they get old-they’ll have a home on the reservation no matter what-they don’t believe they’ll need any sort of life insurance protection.

However, he says he’s doing fine. He recently got some pension business from the reservation-he’s doing the retirement plan for the teachers in a reservation school-and he’s still working in real estate development. And, like many of the agents in the cities and towns along the Road, he has no intention of retiring.

The end of the road
Much to my surprise, I was sad at the end of my trip. Part of me wanted to drive 66 the rest of the way to California, and see what was out there. But duty (and my desk) called. Still, I was gratified to have seen, up close, a good two-thirds of Route 66-from St. Louis to Gallup-and to have had the chance to talk to several agents and advisors along the way.

What did I find? I found that, like other small-town agents, the agents of Route 66 have to cope with problems such as competition from big-city agents, carriers demanding higher and higher production levels, and the economic ebbs and flows in their communities and regions. But, like insurance agents and advisors everywhere, everyone I talked to during my trip were dedicated to their communities and committed to their clients and their work.

I also found that for the more rural parts of this country, it’s unlikely that the need will ever end for a traditional agent or advisor, who takes full care of his or her clients’ insurance needs, and does whatever it takes to make sure those needs are met.

 


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