In the News
Now what? Professional organizers help with the preparation, aftermath
By Patricia Murphy, Triblocal.com, July 3, 2008
Ed Sarlo was a man who liked to hold on to things.
Perhaps the habit was a vestige of his World War II generation. Perhaps
it was because he never moved much.
But the reason why mattered little to Sarlo's children when he passed
away in February 2007, and it became their responsibility to sort
through the memorabilia, letters and mountains of photographs their
father had amassed in his Lombard home throughout the years.
"What prompted me to [tackle his belongings] was that my sister was
moving out of the house. She lived with him for 25 years and then for
the last 12, he lived in a separate apartment nearby," said Lombard's
Vicki Grant, Sarlo's daughter. "My sister started going through the
house and found it overwhelming."
Grant's friend, professional organizer and owner of Hire Order,
Jeannie Triezenberg of Naperville, offered to assist with the time
consuming and emotionally demanding process. Triezenberg had lent a hand
in similar situations, in one instance helping a terminally ill woman
ensure that her book collection would find its way to Wheaton College
following her death.
"Jeannie kept saying 'I'll help you with it' and that was the push I
needed," Grant said. "She put things in perspective and she was someone
who was there and holding me accountable. We said let's meet every
Monday and the first Monday came and I was like, 'if you can't make
But Triezenberg could make it and together the women cleaned out a home
filled with a lifetime's worth of possessions.
The Business of Estate Organization
Most professional organizers have their minds on clogged closets and
cluttered kitchens when they enter the field, but helping one prepare
for life's most significant transition or assisting people, reeling from
a recent death, sort through the effects that were their loved one's
life has become a sizable niche market in recent years.
Pioneering the industry was Jeanne K. Smith, owner of the Palo Alto,
"I started my business 16 years ago, and no one was doing this kind of
work at that time," Smith said. "At that time, I didn't even know I was
a professional organizer."
It was her first husband who opened Smith's eyes to the need for this
service. Decades ago, the night before her husband's scheduled hernia
operation, the couple sat down to discuss everything from investments to
his wish to be cremated.
While out visiting their attorney to hand over some documents later that
night, Smith's husband was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
"I followed [my husband's] list to the nth degree, and I just felt so
loved and cared for," she said.
Then other family members and close friends began passing away, and
Smith was again left to sort through the things that needed sorting
through. Soon others were seeking out her knowledge when the same
happened to them.
Today Smith takes on about 40 clients a year, has taught 85 professional
organizers all they need to know about estate organization and has plans
for several more training seminars across the country, including one in
the Chicago area. Much of her work centers on locating and arranging
paperwork – legal certificates, life insurance forms, financial
statements and the like – but Smith also shoulders the more conventional
tasks that come with the job like sorting, systemizing and discarding
"The need is growing exponentially because the baby boomers are growing
exponentially," she said. "You have millions of baby boomers turning 60,
and they're starting to lose their associates, spouses and aging
The subject of death is easy enough to avoid and the excuses to do so
are endless – it's morbid, it's bad luck, it won't happen for years –
but those caught unprepared often find the situation unbelievably
Sarlo's papers were up-to-date and in a safe place at the time of his
death, but Smith estimated that 70 percent of Americans do not have
their affairs in order. If someone hasn't attended to this business
before their mid-70s, it usually doesn't happen until after they've
passed on, she said.
Smith ticked off a number of matters people, most often adult children,
neglect to wrap up before a death and then struggle with in the wake of
"Was the person a veteran?," she asked. "There are veterans benefits at
the time of death, but you're going to need discharge papers. What are
the passwords for the computer? Do you have the voicemail code for the
phone because you need to change the outgoing message. Is the organ or
body donation form signed and where is it? Where are the bank accounts
and are there direct deposits and direct withdrawals? Where are the most
important documents like birth and marriage certificates?"
"Most people don't have a clue what they're in for when they're named
executor, that they're going to have to give up a better part of a
year," she added.
To this end, Smith has created "Exit Strategies: A Plan and Place for
Your Estate Information," an interactive software program or workbook
that allows users to record all of their pertinent information and
future wishes. The resource is indispensable in the event of death, but
also proves its worth in cases of incapacity or natural disaster, Smith
Unearthing Hidden Treasures
The years have shown Smith a lot of sadness, both her own and that of
others, but it has also brought many unexpected surprises. There was the
diamond ring in the Band-Aid box, significant sums of money buried
beneath a rug and a whopping $13,000 lodged inexplicably in a container
filled with cat cremains.
Cleaning out her father's estate, Grant was delighted by some of her
"I found some really fun stuff like pictures from high school and
pictures of old boyfriends," she said.
Grant found photographs of her uncle when he was boy, which she then
passed on to his son, a man who had never really known his father, and
tenderly worded letters from her grandmother to her sons while they
served in the Armed Forces.
But the most exciting discovery of them all was a box of old photographs
and miscellaneous items once belonging to Carol Lawrence, a former
Broadway star and wife to the late Robert Goulet. A longtime friend of
Sarlo's had lived in Lawrence's childhood Melrose Park home and had
given him the items.
Resurrected were pictures of the dark-haired beauty with Dean Martin,
John Kennedy and Goulet as well as Lawrence's high school diploma from
Proviso Township High School. Grant intends to hand over the items to
the singer when she performs at Ravinia in September.
"This is what my dad would have wanted," Grant said. "In a way, I think
he kind of pushed me into this."
To see items from Grant's Carol Lawrence collection,
Article available on line by
Triblocal - Voice of the town. Sponsored by the Chicago Tribune