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A Hard Fall From Grace : He once had it all--a good job, money, power. Now he's homeless. What happened to Terry McKelvey?

October 07, 1994|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The white-haired man carries extra clothes in a plastic bucket as he weaves his way down bustling Broadway. Sometimes he pushes a shopping cart or totes plastic bags, but the bucket can be used for a stool should his back begin to ache.

His pace is hectic, as if he were late for a flight or important business meeting. His thoughts are equally rushed--even his words cannot keep up. He has no particular appointment, no deadline. Still he races forward. He pauses in front of the stately Bradbury Building and approaches slowly, like a cautious stranger. Standing beneath its arched entryway, he peers through the thick, dark glass, lifting a hand to his forehead to cut the midday glare.

For 17 years, he managed this five-story building at the corner of 3rd Street and Broadway while it was owned by Western Management Corp., founded during the Depression by his father with $200. Built in 1893, the Romanesque-style Bradbury now is a state historical landmark. It has aged gracefully--more so than the man, now 59.

The first time he walked into the building, he was 7. He recalls taking the open-cage elevator to the top floor, looking down at the floor of the open inner court and tossing a piece of paper over the railing and watching it flutter away.

Much has changed since then, much has fluttered away. And now for Terry McKelvey, it is all gone: the Bradbury, the Newport Beach properties, the $1.2 million, the boats, including the 75-foot Discovery. He lives on the streets in Downtown L.A.

For years, family members say, they warned him that drinking would devour him. They also say they witnessed symptoms of manic depression in McKelvey--expansiveness, unwarranted optimism, grandiosity, lack of judgment. He has never cooperated in treatment and has never been diagnosed.

"Manic depression is where you're real up and then depressed," McKelvey says. "The thing is with me, I'm very energetic, very optimistic, but sometimes I get down, especially after I have some beers, but I don't get all depressed."

He drinks only beer, he says--not hard liquor--and he "burns it up" real fast. When he is flat broke, he drinks only coffee and water. By his own definition, he is not an alcoholic.

Drinking, however, has caused him problems. Department of Motor Vehicle records show two convictions in 1991 for driving under the influence.

*

It is hard to pinpoint when McKelvey's life began to change. As a child he lived in modest homes on West 77th Street and in West Adams Gardens.

He was drawn to the beach, where he learned to surf and eventually became a lifeguard. The ocean was more than a playground, it was a teacher.

"You don't argue with the surf," he likes to say. "You see what that wave's gonna do. If you look, you can see how it's shaping, and you make your moves. The wave's in charge. You try to argue with that wave, and you're gonna get roughed up. That's the way I look at life. I surf it."

He has always been an adventurer. When he was no more than 4 years old, he set out one day to explore the world with a wagon filled with stuffed animals. He walked out of the front yard of the family home in Los Angeles, and the police finally caught up with him and his merry band of teddy bears a mile away. From that point on, the front gate was locked.

There are times when he sees his life now as just another adventure, another of life's waves, this one carrying him to a land of urban nomads and cardboard homes. He sometimes looks at Skid Row as if he were merely a visitor doing research.

Other times, however, he feels as though once again the gate has been locked on him, leaving him a star-crossed denizen, caged inside something dark and deep and terrible.

It's an unlikely turn of events for someone who majored in business administration at USC, where he was president of his fraternity and honored for overall student achievement. In 1959, a year after graduation, he married. He and his wife had four children, all of whom grew up to be college graduates. He has an 8-year-old daughter by the second of his three marriages.

"This is a disastrous thing for someone at my age," he says. "I don't know what my little girl will think of me. Here's a dad that was sitting on top of the heap, living in Newport Beach right on the water, had a home. . . . I just lost it, that's all. I lost everything."

*

Those who love him wonder how much farther there is to fall, believing that only when he can fall no more will he begin turning his life around. They have tried to reach out to him, but McKelvey--who tends to blame others for his descent--has rejected outsiders' attempts.

It is his oldest daughter, Laura McKelvey, 31, who became "the rock of the family" after his mother's death in 1991, McKelvey says. "She and I have always been close. She told me once I was her best friend."

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