Broken Dreams

Couple keeps hoping as mail piles up

By Paul Wilborn, Times Staff Writer (Nov. 2, 1997)

One Tuesday last month, Thomas and Mabel Clark drove their 1988 camper van to Dimmitt Cadillac on U.S. 19 to do some shopping.

Clark, a retired Baptist minister, found the car he wanted in the showroom. A 1998 Deville, white with a blue top. It was a special showroom model, which was reflected in the $51,000 sticker price.

Clark, 91, and his wife, 88, took a test drive. They went into the salesman's glass office and negotiated the price.

It will take a few days for the money to come through, Clark told Neil Gerbe, the 34-year-old salesman.

He pulled out the letter from United States Purchasing Exchange, a catalog and sweepstakes company in North Hollywood, Calif. Clark would have no trouble paying for the car with his $3,628,000 prize.

Gerbe shook his head. The polite, straight-backed couple, in their formal clothes, reminded him of his grandparents. He said he was afraid they hadn't actually won any money.

That's the same thing our children told us, Clark said.

But the letters and envelopes that pour into their Clearwater apartment every day tell them something else. They are about to be rich.

In the increasingly competitive world of sweepstakes come-ons, the Clarks are everyone's target market. They believe the promises and back it up with cash.

The Clarks aren't alone. Elder law attorneys and experts on aging say the elderly are particular targets of sweepstakes companies.

At the dealership, Clark looked back at the letter.

He was one of the company's best customers. Over the past few years, he and his wife had spent thousands of dollars on gifts from the catalog. They had other letters from USPE assuring them that cars, big-screen televisions and cash awards were on the way, rewards for their loyalty.

If those prizes didn't come through, there were others. The Clarks had letters from American Family Publishers, Publisher's Clearing House and a host of other sweepstakes and prize companies, promising that big money was headed their way.

Clark answered all the letters. He ordered magazines and products and sent special fees for processing his entries quickly. He wrote checks or used his credit card. The $6,000 credit limit on one card was spent.

They told the car salesman he should come to their house and see all the products. Orange peelers. Brass-plated hangers. A stove-top cooker. A wooden sewing organizer. Pillows. Robes. Ceramic teapots. Videotapes. They are still in the shipping boxes, in a back bedroom of their small apartment.

The stack is 4 feet high.

Back home in Paterson, N.J., where the Clarks live during the summer, there are more boxes. They took a truckload home with them last summer.

The magazines are in Paterson, too. Stacked neatly in a pile that comes to Clark's waist and covers most of the floor of one room.

In the glass office at the dealership, the Clarks stood carefully. They said goodbye to the young salesman.

They'd be back when the money arrived.

Thomas Clark's mailman said he has never known anyone who gets as much mail as Clark does. Every day, just after noon, Clark returns to his third-floor apartment in On Top of the World, a retirement community. He carries a stack of mail about a foot thick.

The apartment is spotless. Candlesticks and ceramic figures cover the tables and line the windowsills. Family photos fill the kitchen wall. There's a picture of Clark's graduating class at Moody Bible Institute in 1932. And a pennant from Wheaton College, where Mabel Clark graduated.

Thomas preached all his life in Baptist churches. Mabel, whom he married 62 years ago in Michigan, taught Latin. They raised six children and retired to Florida in 1972.

Until about a year ago, when he decided to take it easier, Clark was the chaplain at On Top of the World. He wrote a regular column for the community newsletter and delivered all the official prayers.

Both Thomas and Mabel are healthy, mentally sharp and in love.

"We just enjoy each other so much," Mabel says.

Friday, when Thomas picked his wife up from her hairdresser appointment, they walked under matching plaid umbrellas.

At home, he wears a light blue striped suit that's a little large for his tall, thin frame. Below the jacket is a plaid sweater vest, a blue tie adorned with a jeweled pin. Mabel wears a high-necked blue suit, with a long skirt. There's a Christmas tree pin at her collar.

The Clarks are from a generation that considered it important to answer your mail. So these days Thomas Clark spends hours working his way through the daily stacks. They cover the kitchen table. And a couch in back. He also has put some of the mail in boxes with his purchases.

"I spend a lot of my day answering mail," Clark says.

The couple was burned by a lottery company a few years ago. They sent $900 twice, but none of the promised money ever arrived.

He says they are more careful now.

But the magazines and the boxes of products keep arriving. So do the promises of riches: Clark is pledged a $1,000,000 Super Prize from a company in Topeka, Kan. Sweepstakes Administrator's Awards Division has guaranteed him $11,000 -- send $10 for the $3,800 bonus pack and $3 for rush processing. Vault Charter promises him $12,000 and asks for an $8.99 assessment and a $2 rush processing fee. Money Express tells Clark he can claim his $10,000 prize. They ask for $17 for a bonus pack and $3 for processing. One company promises a car and asks: "Is there a Buick dealership within 50 miles of your residence?"

Thomas Clark feels confident that the money will be arriving soon. He is eager to pick up his car.

But Mabel is starting to wonder.

"The money keeps going out. When you go to the bank, you wonder, where does it go?"

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