People Staff
March 23, 1981 12:00 PM

Next to sex and Ping-Pong, competitive complaining may be Americans’ favorite indoor sport. Most people languish forever in the minor leagues, trading in tales of flawed bosses, unwelcome in-laws and the other small ingratitudes of fate. But the who’s-worse-off game, like all others, has its natural champions—men and women on whom some truly noxious, ignoble or simply Sisyphean burden has come to rest. At such heights of infelicity, comparison becomes pointless: Is Chrysler President Lee Iacocca’s supplicant slog through red ink, for example, any more punishing than NBC President Fred Silverman’s long captivity in the Nielsen family cellar? Nevertheless, secure in the knowledge that at this level of play winning is nobody’s idea of a good time anyway, PEOPLE herewith presents the five men and one woman who hold title, arguably, to the Six Worst Headaches in America.

For Reagan’s budgeteer, ‘the honeymoon is over’

David Stockman’s Washington is a decidedly lonely place. As point man for President Reagan’s assault on federal spending, the boyish, 34-year-old director of the Office of Management and Budget is charged with monitoring the corridors of power for those who spend tax dollars not wisely but too well. So far he has hit-listed $48 billion in federal programs—and made a small army of powerful enemies. Last week Reagan sent the Stockman recommendations to Congress—and the Republican-dominated Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee promptly moved to moderate his proposals for cuts in social services. Congressional Democrats, it goes without saying, have unsheathed the long knives. “Mr. Stockman’s one-way honeymoon with Congress is just about over,” warns Democratic Rep. Fred Richmond of New York. Richmond’s two favorite oxen—subsidies to the arts and the food stamp program—have been savagely gored by Stockman. The congressman feels stung. “Stockman talks through his hat,” he says. “He’s totally inexperienced.”

Elsewhere the honeymoon goes on. “Dave Stockman has done in 30 days what his predecessors would have taken a year to do,” says Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had the OMB job under Richard Nixon. Clearly, Stockman has been doing his best: He toils 110-hour, seven-day weeks, calls meetings for 7 a.m., works through meals—and remains preternaturally calm. “It’s a terribly intense life, but he seems to enjoy it,” one associate marvels—and the boss concurs. “My adrenaline is pumped up,” he says. “I can cope with the pressure.”

Others, alas, cannot. His girlfriend, 26-year-old IBM representative Jennifer Blei, moved out shortly after he accepted his new post. “He was always a workaholic,” she says ruefully, “but there was usually time for tennis, movies or dinner on the weekend. Now his idea of home cooking is frozen dinners.” For all his good intentions, moreover, some friends worry that Stockman’s efforts will ultimately backfire. “If he makes this work, he’s little David beating Goliath,” in the words of one insider. “But I think he’s setting himself up to be a fall guy.”

A stolid pro-nuker mops up the mess at TMI

Two years after the ominous and nearly tragic “incident” at the power plant in Middletown, Pa., the very name of Three Mile Island evokes the specter of nuclear disaster. Last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reduced its damage estimate, calling the radiation emitted so far “totally insignificant.” But the citizens of Middletown remain unsettled by rumors of residual effects—and by expert statements that the core of Unit 2 could still suffer a catastrophic meltdown.

The task of restoring Middletown’s peace of mind—and of undertaking the most massive nuclear cleanup in U.S. history—has fallen to Unit 2 director Gale Hovey (above, with a model of TMI, backdropped by the real thing). An outspoken partisan of atomic power, he took charge of decontaminating the reactor last year. To Hovey, 48, a former atomic submarine officer who left a South Carolina nuclear fuel reprocessing plant for TMI, it is less a job than a vocation. “Until Three Mile Island is cleaned up, there will be a cloud over nuclear power,” he says. “We have got to get new orders for nuclear plants flowing again.”

The challenge is formidable. Hovey’s 750-member task force must remove 700,000 gallons of highly radioactive water from the containment building, decontaminate the structure, develop the technology necessary to remove the more than 39,000 damaged uranium fuel rods in the core and dispose of the radioactive remains. Meanwhile, even Hovey admits another accident is possible in Unit 2, although he flatly denies that a China Syndrome meltdown could occur during the five-year, $1 billion cleanup. Hovey is taking medication for high blood pressure (“I didn’t know what busy was before this”), but he claims to have “no regrets” about taking the TMI job. “I am committed to nuclear power for my children’s sake,” says the father of three (ages 19 to 25). “In the future, it will be the only way they can enjoy the standard of living that I do now.”

A new coach tackles the hapless NFL Saints

“The number one thing you gotta do with this team is create a feeling that they can win,” says O.A. “Bum” Phillips, 58, newly minted coach of the New Orleans Saints. Bum’s new team can win—they proved it last season by winning a game. So it was only one. And, yes, the Saints—whose 55-142-5 record since 1967 is the sorriest in NFL history—are a team whose masochistic fans sometimes wear paper bags over their heads during games. No matter: Bum believes. “The fact that we lost a lot of ball games last year,” he says, “doesn’t mean we don’t have a good team.”

For a man in Phillips’ position, such optimism is stunning. In six seasons, compiling a 64-56 record, he rehabilitated the Houston Oilers into contenders. But last season they lost their second straight play-off, and in a descent swifter than Adam’s, Bum (above, after his last Oilers game) plummeted from the top ranks of the NFL to the only available head coaching billet—in the deep cellar. “This is a whole lot better job,” he gamely insists. “I have a way lot more money and all the authority I need.” Nowadays Bum is watching college game films and looking forward to first pick in the spring draft. He warns it will take at least two years to build a winner, and in the meantime he’s counting on the fans’ die-hard loyalty, however bizarre it may sometimes be. “After all,” he says, “when you’re not winning you’d better have something else going for you.”

An old NASA hand nurses the glitch-prone shuttle

Nine years ago Congress gave NASA the task of producing a reusable orbital vehicle (a/k/a the Space Shuttle) by 1979. The agency, in turn, assigned the task to an old hand, Robert F. Thompson, 55, an aeronautical engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston who cut his teeth on the space program of the ’50s—and is now determined to make sure that the shuttle does not become the Edsel of the ’80s. “The general tendency is to see the Space Shuttle project as behind schedule and over budget,” says Thompson. So it is, with an estimated cost so far of $10 billion. Because of critical failures—engines that misfired, for example, and heat-shield tiles that fell off—the shuttle has already gone two years past the original launch date. Still, the greatest challenge Thompson has had to face is not technological but managerial: More than 50,000 people are involved in getting the shuttle off the ground. If everything goes as planned, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen will finally pilot the shuttle into orbit for the first time in mid-April. But it’s a big if: The flight has been rescheduled several times this year. Thompson defends the technical excellence of his operation—and points out that budget considerations took high priority. “The President and Congress didn’t just say they wanted the shuttle and the hell with the cost,” he says. “They said they wanted it, and here’s a reasonable budget.”

To be sure, the shuttle has been an immensely complex endeavor; with engineers and technicians in scores of locations across the U.S., even a seemingly minor modification—like changing the size of a drilled hole—could set progress back for weeks. And much of the cost overrun is attributable to inflation. “We faced and conquered a great many tough obstacles,” says Thompson, who predicts an age of casual space travel for the general public and finds the prevailing cynicism about his shuttle disconcerting. “I’d like the country to take more pride in the shuttle,” he says. “But I guess that will come later.”

An entrepreneur goes spectacularly bust

E. Sterling Hunsaker of Salt Lake City may be accused of many things—and is—but not of thinking small. Hunsaker is $613 billion in debt—that’s billion, with a “b.” He has $7,310 to his name. What he owes amounts to about two-thirds of the national debt.

Getting that broke is no mean feat, but Hunsaker’s career was perfect preparation. Fired from his last job as sales manager for a jet mechanics’ correspondence school, Hunsaker—who by then had founded and lost 40 businesses—decided to make his fortune as an inventor. His first brainchild, unfortunately, was a contraption he thought would sort out previously irretrievable traces of gold and silver from vast amounts of raw materials. After exhausting $1.5 million in borrowed venture capital, he turned to an alleged Panamanian trust firm doing business in Las Vegas. “They had half a dozen people in a big office,” he recalls. “Everything looked legitimate.” What happened is for the courts to decide. But according to Hunsaker (right, with drilling data on property he planned to mine), the trust issued a plethora of notes against his untapped mining claims. A year later, he says, he learned there were no assets in the trust and he was personally liable for its debts: “My name was on everything.” It took him three months just to add up his indebtedness for the bankruptcy. “I knew the total was going to be kind of high,” he says. “A couple of hundred billion maybe. But I didn’t know it was going to be anything like that.”

Hunsaker contends that the FBI has absolved him of wrongdoing, but one SEC lawyer doesn’t see it that way. “I’ve heard a lot of people say we’ve given them a clean bill of health,” he says, “but I’ve never seen one of those certificates.” And even if he escapes the government, some of Hunsaker’s creditors will doubtless persevere: One man who claims to have lost $100,000 sent him an ominous news clipping about a revenge murder. Still, Sterling Hunsaker is nothing if not a prospector of silver linings. “I may be wiped out,” he says cheerfully, “but if worse comes to worst, there’s always the Guinness Book of World Records.”

A feisty outsider takes on Chicago schools

“I tend not to worry too much,” says Ruth Love, 48. Next week she will become the first black superintendent of the Chicago school system—and her unflappability will be put to its severest test yet. The city’s schools are on the brink of financial chaos. Pupil test scores are below average. The dropout rate has been 10 percent over the past decade. The system, moreover, is obligated by March 31 to desegregate—a neat trick, since the pupil population is 60 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 18 percent white. To make matters worse, veteran administrators are furious that Love (left, with students), who had been the superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif., has been called in from outside. Sniffs Chicago’s acting superintendent Angeline Caruso: “She’s coming from the bush leagues into the big leagues without any spring training.”

Love’s first moves will win her no friends; she may have to shut down over 30 schools—and, as she wryly notes, “You know the minute you go to close a school it becomes a magnificent place.” This summer she will have to negotiate a contract and possible job cuts with a powerful, well-paid teachers’ union—and deal with a highly politicized school board. She must also somehow make up a $45 million deficit by August 31. The Chicago job won’t leave Love without money: She’ll make $120,000 a year—twice Mayor Jane Byrne’s salary. But that, she says could never compensate for a job that even her mother urged her to decline. “What really hooked me was when people told me the job couldn’t be done,” she says. “If the system were in relatively good shape, I wouldn’t be interested.”

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