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The death of Dolly Plumb this week underscores a problem that has plagued Utah thrift depositors in their ongoing struggle to recover lost savings: Depositors who die before getting all their money back.

"It amplifies the feelings of helplessness and the urgency to deal with the problem," depositor Sheila Bohard said of Plumb's passing.Plumb, who was well-known as an active member of the Democratic Party, was also lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit of 16,000 thrift depositors against the state. Depositors had accused state government of negligence and fraud in the 1986 failure of five state-regulated thrift institutions holding more than $100 million in privately insured savings accounts.

Depositors have since settled claims against the state. But it has taken almost 20 months to resolve costs of the settlement, and millions of dollars in attorneys' fees are still on appeal. Meanwhile, savings trickle in to depositors from the lengthy process of liquidating thrift assets, which will take at least another two years.

Bohard, who heads the depositor organization that Plumb helped found to spearhead the savings recovery effort, estimates that at least 250 depositors have died since being told four years ago they would lose as much as half of their life savings because of the thrift crisis.

The majority of depositors are retirement age or older - Plumb was 65 - and many of their surviving spouses say the stress of the situation accelerated deteriorating physical and mental health. "We know of at least one suicide specifically over the loss of the money. When you are retired and these monies are what you have to live on, it definitely takes its toll," Bohard said.

Although Plumb's cancer wasn't linked to stress over the thrift crisis, the devastating possibility that she and others might losing their life savings didn't escape her.

"She told me once that it (the thrift crisis) was the first thing she thought of when she got up in the morning and the last thing she thought of at night," said depositor and close friend Carol Thompson.

At the same time, Plumb also learned from the experience that money isn't everything, Thompson said. "It taught her the value of money; what it did and didn't do in your life."

Plumb was among the first group of depositors to organize a committee that would represent depositors while the state tried to resolve the financial fiasco. Plumb also served on state appointed committees and task forces dealing with the problem.

Using her political contacts, Plumb directed early lobbying efforts of legislators reluctant to deal with the debacle. Both Bohard and Thompson noted that while Plumb was as angry and frustrated as anyone else over the state's handling of the thrift crisis, she didn't lose hope and advocated using the system and taking a diplomatic approach in dealing with state officials.

"She had been in politics and knew things didn't happen overnight. She didn't get discouraged," added Bohard.

Plumb helped select the legal counsel that would use her name and credibility as lead plaintiff in the class action suit, which forced a settlement in 1988 with the state. The settlement, through a cash payment and proceeds from the ongoing liquidation of thrift assets, promises to eventually return more than 90 percent of depositors' savings.

The remaining amount could be collected from litigation against others accused of contributing to the thrifts' financial demise.

Bohard said money is still owed to Plumb and to others who have since died. Forthcoming distributions will go to appointed heirs, she said.