A Chauffeur's Death, A Widow's Drive
Mary Ganganna sat on her sofa indulging in her innocent pleasure, watching Wheel of Fortune, yelling at the contestants.
“By a vowel, buy a vowel…”
She kept glancing at the clock, rhythmically watching it move toward 7 p.m. Where’s Dinesh?
Her husband operated their luxury transport service, serving as their elite limousine chauffeur. He’ll walk into their posh home as he always does on Fridays, she thought, flashing his neon grin creasing a chubby caramel face before yelling for their two toddler daughters.
“Where are my babies?” he’ll yell in his high-pitched squeal that fills the house like a sweet clarinet.
The girls will dash to him, leaping into his arms, climbing him like a jungle gym before he hauls them to the kitchen table where his mother serves his favorite native India dishes: samosas, chutney and vegetable sandu, all complimented with a seemingly bottomless pot of rice.
Unable to take the torment anymore, Ganganna sprinted to the phone calling an office assistant, asking for her husband.
Oh, how he looked so splendid when he left the house that morning in his black suit, glimmering white shirt, dark tie loosed dangling over his lapels, she thought.
The aide told Ganganna her husband chauffeured a top client before noon, when he picked up his Suburban truck.
“Mary, there’s been a terrible accident down the street,” the assistant added. “They’re flying in a Medevac helicopter.”
As she slowly hung up the receiver, Ganganna knew: Dinesh.
They met in a Washington, D.C. gym he managed in 1992. One night, while walking through posh Georgetown, they stumbled across a bevy of limousines, enamored by the rich and famous pouring out of the cars.
Dinesh loved automobiles since he was a kid, sitting in the passenger seat, pretending to twist a steering wheel like his mother. He told Ganganna he always wanted to start a limousine company, so they went for it.
“It was exciting,” she says. “It was a life I never experienced, my eyes were glittering.”
They purchased a limousine from the old celebrity Fabio, which Dinesh parked outside chic nightclubs, leaning against the frame, smiling, luring well-dressed passengers one ride at a time.
His Velcro personality attracted a growing list of clients and the couple landed their first major contract with a Washington sports team in 1999.
Before long, they were hauling in a million dollars a year allowing them to live their dream, a posh home, expensive cars and spending $300 a week on groceries.
As she arrived at the crash scene on the bitterly cold night of February 23, 2007, she stepped out of her SUV, approached by a policewoman.
“I’m sorry,” the officer said.
The impact of the speeding Porsche driven by a 19-year-old threw her husband out of the truck, leaving him splayed across the highway. His business papers, carried in the cab, lied scattered on the road.
Ganganna let out a guttural wail that rang into the night, rising deep from her soul as she collapsed to her knees onto the street knowing that her best friend, the man she intended to grow old with, was gone.
“You feel nothing and everything,” she says. “Your body automatically goes limp.”
Back at the house, mourners paraded in, “sorry for your loss…what a great man,” yet she heard nothing. No way she could sleep in their bedroom but did take a moment to step into his closet, plunging her nose into his shirts, still perfumed by his spicy scent.
She slept on the living room floor that night, the morning sun slashing through curtains waking her, stabbing at her eyes. The company accountant, insurance agent and banker were waiting.
“Can we talk to you in the bedroom?” one asked.
They broke the news that her husband left no money in the company. She was broke. He also amassed a million and a half dollars in debt, owing one of the professionals before her $100,000, she said.
Her wheel of fortune had gone bust.
“I was in shock that they were telling me this so quickly after he was gone,” she says. “But I knew right then I had to protect myself and my girls.”
To this day, she doesn’t know what happened to the money. He loved his toys, the luxury boat the most, she said. And he had branched off into building houses, taking a major hit from an NFL football star who reneged on a $2 million mansion built for him.
But she couldn’t be angry at Dinesh, she said.
“I knew he was doing it all to give the girls and I a good life,” she says.
She didn’t even have the money to buy a funeral dress, her arriving four sisters shuttling her to the mall and paying for one.
The morning of the wake, someone from the office called to say the phone company shut off service, the bill delinquent for months. She and a sister rushed to the utility, her sibling paying the bill.
On the morning of the funeral, driver pay checks were bouncing. On the day she should be preparing to bury her husband, Ganganna jumped on the phone to call clients, begging them to pay their bills.
“It was my loyalty to the employees,” she says. “I have nothing but my reputation and I didn’t want to let the workers down.”
The funeral ended with the sound of Dinesh’s mother wailing at the loss of her baby boy. As Ganganna left the church, she saw a platoon of chauffeur service rivals squawking like crows. The competing business owners were trying to steal her clients by telling them her company was out of business, she said.
She called or visited about 150 clients over the next three days assuring them she’s still their driver.
“I wasn’t backing down to the other businesses, which were all controlled by men,” she says.
Friends, family and business associates told her to declare bankruptcy and take the girls back to her native Ohio. Yet when Ganganna entered her former husband’s office, sitting in his high leather chair, she felt as comfortable as a fighter pilot.
She decided to take over the company.
“I was up for the challenge,” she says.
Her decision transported her back to the fields of the Bright Farm in Lordstown, Ohio, 1975, where she picked tomatoes on summer weekends as a 9-year old earning $1 a bushel.
She loved the fresh smell of the cucumbers and green beans, basking in the warmth of the sun bouncing off her fair skin.
The farm sat down the road from the trailer she and her seven siblings were confined to after dad ran off to marry another woman. He regularly failed to pay the $125 a week in child support despite holding a good union job at the new General Motors plant.
The circumstances caused the children to fend for themselves, bringing home their pay to their poor, defeated mother, a local school janitor.
“You didn’t even think about it,” Ganganna says. “It was what it was.”
At 13, the girls cleaned houses three years before Ganganna proudly earned her first paycheck at the new McDonald’s.
She loved the golden arches because it was a happy place, foreign to her misery. She always volunteered to work the birthday parties, filled with squealing children feted with celebrations and gifts she never had.
“The birthday parties were so much fun, the cakes, the kids, the toys,” she says. “I was the queen of the birthday parties going in on Saturday and Sundays sometimes working four a day.”
She thrived in the company discipline, the attention to detail, adopting the McDonald’s motto: always make the customer happy.
“I learned a lot about leadership and responsibility,” she says.
She also absorbed the practices of the franchise owners, a father and son team, the Covellis. She admired how they dressed in crisp business suits and cashmere coats, their gold cufflinks glistening.
They demanded perfection. The sizzling fries must sit in the bubbling oil for a precise amount of time and the men often stopped at night unannounced, ordering employees to pick up every scrap of paper dotting the parking lot.
“They were inspirations not only because they were great business people,” Ganganna says of the pair, who later invested in the first Panera Bread restaurants. “They saw the future.”
After she assumed her husband’s company, the lawsuits washed ashore.
Her husband partnered on jobs coast to coast, Florida to California, over two dozen owners claiming he owed them over a million dollars collectively.
On the advice of an angelic attorney, who once sued her husband in a property dispute, Ganganna offered the claimants 10 cents on the dollar, all she could afford. They all refused getting nothing because her name didn’t appear on the original business ownership papers, leaving her absolved of any liability.
“I tried to give everybody a little bit of nothing,” she says. “What bothered me most is they didn’t believe me when I was telling the truth.”
She formed a new company, DTS Nationwide and Worldwide Transportation Services. Despite being armed only with a high school diploma, she knew her survival depended on keeping revenue flowing by recruiting new clients.
She visited prospective customers with a tray of cookies, a kindness her mother taught her knowing everyone appreciates food.
She and the girls moved into a tiny apartment, a sister told her of a national church program providing discount groceries to the poor and she shopped for business clothes in thrift stores, she said.
“I felt like a beggar, back in my childhood,” she recalls. “You take your pride and throw it out the window.”
She read as many business books as she could consumer, obtaining a street version of Master of Business Administration degree. She also learned of a federal Small Business Administration program, SCORE, that offered the assistance of the nation's largest network of former business executive volunteers.
Her mentor coached her on how to track every dime going in and out of the company. His kindness reminded her of the old cowboy radio and television hero, The Lone Ranger.
“He came in, helped me, educated me and then rode off,” she says. “And he did it all for free.”
He told her to sell half her fleet. She also dismissed an equal number of employees, 15 in all, choosing those she couldn’t trust.
“They were going to take business away by messing up the jobs,” she says. “I needed people who wanted to work and believed in the company because we worked long, long hours.”
Ganganna created a motto that corporations pay people $100,000 to produce, all staff ordered to answer the phones: “We Make it Happen.”
Like the Covellis, she focused on details, painting the office a bright yellow to cheer up her drivers. Yet three months after her husband was buried, she got more grim news: her mother was dying.
Donna Razzano fell for Ganganna’s father’s luring eyes and Beach Boys look, getting pregnant at 15 and dropping out of school.
As if their circumstances weren’t hard enough, her mom and dad punched out a parade of babies -- seven in all, Ganganna next to last, all by the time they were 24.
Her mother served as the children’s sun, the kids orbiting planets after dad left. The children helped mom where they could, hauling their brother, Mickey, suffering from cerebral palsy, into the sun where mom believed he would get stronger.
Mom’s anesthesia was her faith that God would find their address and rescue them. Ganganna’s mom modeled kindness, once giving up her job to keep a fellow employee’s cousin from losing his, she said.
The kids, known through the town as “the dirty Davises,” ate when they could, hanging around friend’s houses until dinner, hoping to get invited to stay. When mom couldn’t pay the rising heat or electric bill when the energy crisis crippled the country in 1974, just after the divorce, she reach out to friends for shelter, she said.
A frequent family stop were the Lutz’, where the children experienced a little bit of heaven and whole lot of hell, according to Ganganna. Mary loved their color television, sitting on the floor cross legged mesmerized by her favorite show, Policewoman.
She thrilled at watching the gorgeous blonde actress Angie Dickinson besting powerful men. The heroic Wonder Woman followed, repelling bullets with her silver bracelets. But the Donna Reed Show sent her into the dream, seeing herself surrounded by a perfect family in a pristine home with a providing father.
Yet the Lutz house of horrors began shortly after her mother would head to the kitchen for coffee with Mrs. Lutz, leaving the children in the clutches of her husband, Clarence, Ganganna said.
He wasted little time groping the little girls after pulling him up on his lap, she said. The worst followed: shower time. They all lined up single file, towels wrapped around their little naked bodies waiting to enter the bathroom torture chamber.
Ganganna stood under the soaking shower spray as Lutz lathered her up, his hands sliding all over her, the scent of the soap he used still sickening her close to 50 years later, she said.
He poked his finger where they didn’t belong and though she was just a little girl, Ganganna knew it was wrong, she said. She numbed herself, turning her face into the shower head, shutting her eyes, basking in the warm water foreign in her own home.
He then wrapped her in a towel, another cop and feel, before waving in her brother, Ganganna remembered. As she donned her pajamas, she looked back at the bathroom knowing he was receiving the same.
As Ganganna travelled to see Mom for the last time, she still burned with resentment. Mom had to know, she thought. They kept telling her, but she wouldn’t believe them, she said. Lutz died in an Ohio prison in 1990 after being convicted of “sexual imposition,” defined as grabbing people in their “erogenous areas,” according to records provided by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Ganganna arrived to her mother’s death bed telling her to let go, she said.“My last words were I love you and say hello to Dinesh,” she says.
Story scholar Joseph Campbell studied tales and myths stretching back to the start of civilization, inspiring the Star Wars saga and defining the hero as someone who loses everything yet comes back stronger.
Ganganna did it twice.
Times are good again. Ganganna reported $4.7 million in sales last year, close to five times her husband’s best haul. She lives in a nice house, drives a Mercedes Benz, has a good man in her life and chauffeurs her teenage daughters to extracurricular activities, both exceptional traditional Indian dancers that would make their father glow.
Ganganna knows she can’t change her horrid childhood or her husband’s death. But she’s determined to give her girls a better life than the one handed her.
“I can’t change my past,” she says. “But I can change my future.”
She’s reconciled with her father, who she lunches with when she returns to Lordstown. She believes the old maxim that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
“I’ll cry at his funeral,” she says. “Just for losing a dad. In a warped way, he made me what I am.”
She owns 40 vehicles now, moving into the luxury corporate transportation arena with mini-vans and two buses. She now serves all four Washington sports teams, MGM casinos, Audi and Volkswagen, hiring 75 employees, feeling not only a responsibility for them but for their children.
The wages she pays may send the kids to college, a chance she never got, she says. She created 401(k) accounts for the chauffeurs and pays for personal time, once unheard of in the industry. The moves have paid off in low employee turnover.
“We’re a family,” she says. “I’d give my last dollar to a driver.”
She’s taught her chauffeurs the foundation of the transportation business, similar to the McDonald’s motto: you’re only as good as the last ride you provide.
Despite her success, Ganganna remains ever vigilant, a business butterfly still floating in and out of area business offices looking for new work.
“You have to seek the opportunity,” she says. “No one is going to say ‘Mary, here’s a million-dollar contract.”
She’s adjusted to the shifting nature of the industry, partnering with the popular new driving services, Uber and Lyft. Like her old Covelli bosses, she keeps her eyes on the road, steering when it curves.
“Sometimes you have to alter your course,” she said,