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Finding Inspiration In The Wake Of Life’s Storms

Wallene Leek was the cheerleader who married the star football player.

She went on to realize her dreams of appearing on TV as a weather anchor and her husband, Rex Dockery, climbed the ranks to become a successful college coach. They completed the picture of the American fairy tale life with two children and a golden future.

“We were living a charmed life,” she said. “He was on a pathway to greatness.”

But it was during her most grueling, darkest days when she saw what love really was. It wasn’t in achievements and the things – it was in the details.

“When he was 35, he dragged me to an attorney to get our wills done and I thought, ‘What are we doing this for?’ ” Leek recalled of her husband.

Then there was the issue of the life insurance she hated paying for. They were young. Everything was in front of them. Why waste the money?

He was on his way to an awards ceremony on Dec. 12, 1983, when his private plane went down, taking him and three others. Instead of preparing for Christmas and a New Year, Leek faced an onslaught of grief and uncertainty.

But one thing was crystal clear in those moments.


“At age 41, he was gone,” she said. “And I realized all the things he did were because he loved us.”

Life insurance ended up not only helping her through those times, but would also serve as her mission in life.

Inspiration rarely comes quietly as we see in these stories. Sometimes, it comes in the form of Hell and high water. A disastrous event can have a silver lining. Experiencing misfortune can inspire someone to guide someone else through a similar life storm or help them to avert a storm altogether.

And the reverse is true as well.

Those who have experienced good fortune in life may be inspired to give back, to share their talent and treasure with others.

Inspiration also can strike in the form of a lucky break in life – an opportunity that comes along and is taken advantage of to the fullest.

Whether it is through success, adversity or “just one of those things,” many advisors find inspiration in taking life’s events and using them to fuel their success while helping others.

We’ll read stories about more of those inspiring life events later on. But back to Wallene Leek.

‘I can’t sell!’

After her husband’s death, Leek was asked to speak to various groups about her experience. “New York Life tried to hire me but I said, ‘I can’t sell!’” she said.

Leek conceded that “God has a sense of humor” because she eventually took up the offer to sell life insurance and became a New York Life agent 15 years ago. Her experience with her husband’s death “is what keeps me in the business,” she said.

“I make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “It might be 10 years before someone sees the benefit of life insurance but when they do, I see the light go on and that’s what makes this worthwhile to me.”

Her husband’s death is not the only adversity that Leek draws on to tell her clients of the importance of financial planning. Her mother suffered a stroke and needed to enter a long-term care facility. With no knowledge of the long-term care funding process and no money available to pay for nursing care, Leek’s mother was forced to sell her home and her assets.

Leek said she frequently tells her life story to prospects as a way of illustrating the importance of life insurance. “I try not to weep all over them, but I do let them know what can and does happen in life,” she said.

“I discuss with them how to integrate life insurance in their total financial plan,” she said. “I also talk to them about making a will. So many of my clients don’t have a will. I always keep after them so they will talk to somebody about drawing up a will. In this business, we often have to do what I call not nagging but ‘gentle reminding.’”

Linda Ray – Bouncing Back After Katrina

The theme of overcoming adversity is something that many advisors have in common. Linda Ray not only had to bounce back from a devastating hurricane but she had to help her clients recover from the catastrophe as well.


Ray is the owner of Better Benefits, specializing in employee benefits and individual insurance, in Metairie, La.

Ray and her mother evacuated before Katrina hit. She said that when they returned to Metairie, “everything was falling apart.”

“My family on the Gulf Coast lost everything,” she said. “My mother lost her home. My home had water in it. We jumped around for four months before I could move back. My office was destroyed.”

Ray said she found inspiration in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey. She had studied the book when she participated in the Leadership in Life Institute, a leadership training program conducted by the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Ray served as a NAIFA national trustee.

Ray said her inspiration began in the first of Covey’s seven habits, which was “be proactive.”

“And then from there, I went through the other habits, ‘begin with the end in mind,’ ‘put first things first,’ ‘think win-win.’ They really helped me to organize my thoughts as I dealt with everything.”

“This started putting things into place for me,” she said. “I grasped on to the things that were positive, trying not to focus on the negative and the overwhelming because there were so many things that were spilling over onto me to take care of.”

‘You need to get busy’

Ray also was inspired by a quote by John Quincy Adams: “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

“What this said to me was: you need to get busy. You need to have patience but you have to persevere,” she said.

“I had to do a lot of manual labor besides trying to put the office together and stay in business in those early days after Katrina,” Ray continued. “I’m thankful that I had the strength to do what needed to be done. Family, faith and perseverance gave me the strength to do what I needed to do.”

Ray had bought a new laptop computer before evacuating and even while she was holed up in a hotel room waiting for the all-clear to return home, she began emailing her clients.

“I stayed on the computer trying to track things down, getting in touch with clients,” she recalled. “As soon as I returned, I started to hear from clients saying ‘are you OK, we’re OK.’ We had to build back our database. Yes, this person is here, this person’s business is closed, this person will be out of town for a while, this person will be out for a few months. We took it one client at a time. For the first couple of months, you had to block out everything but emergencies. We used email at first, then the phones were hooked up at my home, and then we got the business line hooked up. We did lot of service work, letting people know we were available. We eventually got a storage unit and worked out of there for a while before my office was ready for us again.”

Ray credited a number of people in the industry for lending her a helping hand after the hurricane. “Someone loaned me a vehicle, someone else let me stay in their house, and someone loaned my mother a house for four months,” she said. “Everybody recognized that everyone was going through something difficult. The people who were better off were reaching out to help someone else. The difficult part was making those contacts and letting people know that we were there for them.”

In the midst of all the uncertainty, Ray said she asked herself whether she should give up her business and do something else. “I realized this was what I loved, what was familiar to me and I had to hold on to that,” she said. “I wasn’t going to quit.”

Ray said that as a result of her experience with rebuilding after the hurricane, “I became stronger and it helped me to be a strength to others who are going through tragedies.”

“It has made me a better person, a stronger person, a caring person, a patient person. I don’t give up.”

Ray’s experience with loss has fueled another passion – scrapbooking. “I feel scrapbooking and photography correlate with the insurance business,” she said. “We protect the assets and memories for our clients. We want to preserve our client’s history.”

Brian Walsh – Never Giving Up

Growing up in Levittown, Pa., Brian Walsh followed in the steps of many of the men in his community. He joined the local volunteer fire department and began fighting fires when he was a senior in high school. But his volunteerism nearly turned deadly when he was inside a burning building and was caught in a flashover.

He suffered severe lung injuries, third-degree burns on his face and spent a long time in the hospital. His recovery included numerous surgeries to repair the burn damage.

finding-inspiration-in-the-wake-of-lifes-storms-walshWalsh is cofounder and principal of Walsh & Nicholson Financial Group in Wayne, Pa.

Walsh almost died from his injuries. “I was told that most people don’t survive that level of burn in the head area because they usually end up with too much lung damage or an infection,” he said. “Of the 12 of us who were in the burn center at the time I was a patient there, I was the only one who left the hospital. The others didn’t make it.”

The fire left psychological as well as physical damage. “With the injuries to my face, this was something I was going to see every day. No way was I going to be able to cover this up,” Walsh said. “You go through the psychological aspect of it from trying to understand what happened, why it can’t get better, why it won’t go back to normal.”

Walsh’s physical recovery took time as well, with two years of physical and occupational therapy.

But the accident didn’t destroy Walsh’s passion for firefighting. He attended community college and studied arson investigation at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, then went to Memphis State to study fire administration. His goal was to become a fire marshal, but then the life insurance bug bit him.

“While waiting for a job as a fire inspector with the federal government, I got a job in the insurance business,” he recalled. Choosing whether to pursue the fire inspector’s job or continue in the insurance industry was “a difficult decision because the insurance job was commission-based but I liked the insurance business and really felt strongly about it,” he said.

What won him over to an insurance career, he said, was the ability to help people. “When I started in the business, I was with Mutual of Omaha and we dealt with disability insurance, individual health insurance, individual life insurance, Medicare supplements,” he said. “You were meeting with a 65-year-old in the daytime to discuss Medicare supplement options, and then seeing a young family and helping them get started with their financial planning. It wasn’t hard for me to fall in love with the occupation.”

Walsh said that his fight to survive from his accident gave him a “never-give-up attitude,” which he said has been vital to his success in the business.

“You end up with a mentality that sometimes you have to go back and do things,” he said. “Whether it was the fireman who went back into the burning building to get me out or the agent who went back to a company or to a family to convince them why what you’re doing is important for their well-being, you just have to do those things. And it’s not comfortable doing those things sometimes but there are times when you just have to go out there and do something. Just continue to fight. If I’ve had to fight through two hours of physical therapy, that’s painful but at the end of the day you’re better off for it. In our business, if you have to fight to get a couple more appointments or get a couple more people to do what they should be doing, it makes it that much better.”

Walsh said that his experience also gave him courage, which he believes is needed by those in the industry.

“I often tell younger agents that you need to have the courage of your convictions in this business. You need to have the courage to believe in the importance of the products you sell.”

Don Speakman – Inspired to Serve Others

Don Speakman, financial advisor with Speakman Financial in Pittsburgh, has three families. There’s his wife Jamie and their three children and five grandchildren. There’s the office family with whom he serves his clients. And there is his mission family in Haiti – the 10 Haitian children whom he and wife financially support.


Speakman and his wife have made seven or eight mission trips to Haiti over the past 20 years. He was inspired to get involved in mission work through the pastor of his church.

“It just got my heart at the very beginning,” Speakman said of his first mission trip to Haiti. “It’s such a wake-up call. You would see kids in the schools there with tumors on their heads and you’d think those kids wouldn’t be there if you come back next year and then you’d go back and find they had passed. And so you realized they had very poor medical care available to them. But they have made tremendous strides in the past 20 years.”

Speakman’s pastor started a school in Haiti 30 years ago. That effort led to building five more schools in that country, providing education, food and clothing to 3,000 children. Speakman and his wife have been part of a team from the church who visited the schools regularly, conducting Bible schools for the children, helping with construction projects, building desks and stools, and assembling soccer nets.

“We basically try to be an encouragement to the kids, we try to be a positive influence on them,” Speakman said. “On one trip, we took toothpaste and toothbrushes with us and we taught all the kids how to brush their teeth.”

Speakman said his mission work “is a great reminder of how blessed we are to be in this country.”

“I don’t care what anybody says, we all take for granted how good we have it here in the United States. Until you see how people in other parts of the world live, you don’t realize how blessed we are in this country.”

Speakman referred to mission work as “great therapy.”

“The first time you do this, you think you’re making a sacrifice of your time but you find you end up being blessed with far more than what you give. It gives you a tremendous appreciation for what you have here.”

Never having a bad day

Speakman said he has a photo of the Haitian children hanging on his wall. “I look at it and it’s a reminder that we’re not ever having a bad day here. Our worst day here is still better than their best day there.”

He said his mission work has impacted his practice in a number of ways. “My clients know I am involved in the Haiti project, a number of them have made significant contributions to it. We had a golf outing for Haiti and I took some clients to that. We put information on it on our website.”

Speakman said that discussing his Haiti project with clients “helps keep things in perspective.”

“It reminds people how blessed we are to live in America,” he said. “I tell people that all the time. Clients are always complaining about the elections and the candidates and our government and our budget and our deficit and I tell them we still live in the greatest country in the world. I make that part of my message.”

David O’Malley – From Intern to President

David O’Malley was introduced to the financial services business when he was a Drexel University student intern at Penn Mutual. He never left the company. Twenty-two years later, O’Malley was named Penn Mutual’s president and chief operating officer.


“My first job as an intern was photocopying,” he recalled. “I worked in a little room off the main trading floor and I photocopied research reports to stuff into files.”

O’Malley was studying finance and economics at Drexel when he participated in a co-op program at a division of PNC Bank. “One of the analysts I worked with took a job at Penn Mutual Asset Management,” he recalled. “He told me that they had an opening, it was three miles from where I grew up and they would give me a $2 an hour raise to $9 an hour.”

Managing millions – with adult supervision

Photocopying may have been a big part of O’Malley’s internship but that’s not all he did back then.

“I eventually had the opportunity to spend time with our traders and our analysts and our portfolio managers. I really started to learn about what Penn Mutual Asset Management did, where the insurance company’s money came from. I obtained a much better perspective of the asset management business as well as the insurance business.”

Penn Mutual was going through a transition in its asset management firm, which led to some opportunities for O’Malley.

“The chief investment officer needed some help and he let me do some very interesting things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do as a 19-year-old,” he recalled. “I got to manage a couple of hundred million dollars with adult supervision. I was running tax-exempt money market funds with his supervision. It was very cool.”

Still, O’Malley didn’t think he wanted to stay at Penn Mutual. His heart was set on a Wall Street career. But when he graduated, Penn Mutual made him an offer to join their investment team as a portfolio analyst. Within a year or so of starting that job, he was doing risk analytics work and then took over management of the residential mortgage-backed portion of the portfolio. His career took off from there.

O’Malley’s experience as an intern inspires him as he works with the company’s employees. “I learned that everybody starts somewhere. Everybody has a story. I find the most rewarding portion of my job is working with people to understand their desires, their passions and what they want to accomplish professionally, and then putting them in the right positions and watching them thrive.”

He meets with Penn Mutual’s actuarial interns for lunch every summer, and he meets periodically with the company’s other interns. “I think it’s important for them to realize the value of the opportunity they have and realize that it’s not just photocopying – you’re getting insight into a career,” he said.

Mehran Assadi – work is his sport

Mehran Assadi came to the United States from Iran by himself when he was 17. His original plan was to visit a cousin, but he ended up enrolling in high school and meeting his future wife six months later. He stayed in the U.S. to finish high school, attend college and get married. Forty years later, he is president and CEO of National Life.


Assadi started working 18 hours after he arrived in the U.S. His cousin owned a restaurant and Assadi soon began helping out in the restaurant. A year later, he was managing the restaurant.

“My cousin’s philosophy was that in order to be a manager, you first need to know how to do every single job in the place,” Assadi said. As CEO, Assadi does not do every job at the company, but said that his restaurant experience taught him to value “having the right people in the right seats.”

When Assadi was the young father of three small children, he juggled three jobs: software engineer, computer instructor at a local college and working in his cousin’s clothing business.

He started in the insurance business as a software engineer. Eventually he was named the head of National Life in January 2009, at a time when the financial services industry was experiencing numerous challenges amid the Great Recession. The company was undergoing some changes in an attempt to change its focus and vision for the future. Assadi said he drew upon the experiences he had in his early working life to get buy-in on these changes from the company’s staff and agents. The story of how the company changed its focus and philosophy was chronicled in the book “Cause!” by Jackie and Kevin Freiberg.

Assadi said he still keeps in touch with many of the people he met in his early working years. He is inspired by these relationships as well as his desire to keep learning new things.

“This business is my passion outside of my family,” he said. “This is my sport. I’m inspired by my teammates. I’m inspired by my experiences and I tell my children I am in awe of what they will experience over their next 30 years.”

Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan. Contact her at [email protected].

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