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The trip that sank before it sailed

A retired CPS teacher gets feisty after being robbed of a classical music cruise



Judy Dever is a retired CPS teacher, a lifelong resident of Canaryville, and an avid traveler. She's also a fan of classical music: "My only radio station—besides Saturday-morning Irish radio—is WFMT," she says.

And therein lies a cautionary tale.

One day, during the dregs of last year's vicious winter, Dever was navigating Chicago's icy streets, car radio tuned to the dulcet tones of WFMT, when she heard an advertisement for something that sounded wonderful. It was a classical music ocean cruise, a dreamy January escape to the Caribbean aboard a luxury vessel, with composer Roberto Sierra, rising conductor Eckart Preu, Grammy-winning chamber group the Parker Quartet, and a 50-piece orchestra providing the live soundtrack.

That in itself was amazing, Dever says, but here was the corker: Bill McGlaughlin, the genial host of WFMT's nationally syndicated Exploring Music program, would be on board as a guest artist.

She pulled over to write down the phone number, and called Symphonic Voyages, the Chicago-based company putting the cruise together, for information. By the time she decided to sign on, in the fall, she'd had several "very pleasant" conversations with the president, Eric Stassen.

The trip offered a five- or ten-day option, on Celebrity Cruises' 2,000-passenger ship the Millennium, sailing from Miami, between January 23 and February 2. Stassen told her he was expecting the music group to number about 400 people. On November 3 Dever mailed him a $400 deposit, and on November 15, the deadline for booking, she sent a check for what she thought was the remaining amount for the five-day session: $1,698. She also purchased trip insurance for $319. Then, relaxing in anticipation of the treat ahead of her, she began watching for her ticket to arrive in the mail.

But it didn't. And as the holidays approached, she started to worry.

On December 19 Dever called the two numbers she had for Stassen, and found that both phones had been disconnected.

Then she called Celebrity to see if she was on their boarding lists. They'd never heard of her, but they'd learned that Symphonic Voyages had declared bankruptcy the previous day.

Dever was out the $2,098 she'd paid Stassen, plus the $319 for trip insurance—which apparently doesn't cover bankruptcy of the booking agent. But the thing that really pissed her off? "Eric never called me or sent me something to say that it's all off," she says. "That creeped me out. I thought I was totally scammed."

And, pansy music fan or not, no 38-year CPS veteran and Canaryville lifer takes that sitting down. She began writing letters and making phone calls, looking for information. WFMT general manager Steve Robinson heard from her, as did McGlaughlin. (She also called all the Stassens in the Chicago phone book.) Then, on January 9, she got notice from the bankruptcy court of a creditors' meeting. "I know it's probably not smart, because of the emotionality of it," Dever says. "But after I got that bankruptcy notice, I thought I'd like to meet him face-to-face."

And on January 18, in the Loop with some time on her hands, she says, "I figured, well, I'll walk down to Eric Stassen's office," at 600 S. Dearborn, which turned out to be a residential building.

She asked the receptionist to get Stassen on the phone, she says, and "lo and behold, he answers."

"I said 'Eric, hi, it's Judy Dever. I'd like to meet you.'

"He said, 'Did you get the bankruptcy notice?'

"I said, 'Yes, I did, but I'd like to meet you.'

"He said, 'How dare you come to my home?'"

And that, Dever says, launched a tidal wave. "When I went down there, I didn't figure I'd get to see him," she says. "I figured he's in hiding. But if I did get to talk to him, I had a—shall I say—script, in my head. I was ready to use the most exotic language, and I did. And it was mighty. He interrupted once or twice and said, 'How dare you swear at me?,' which just gave me further motivation. I kept challenging him to come down and show his face in the lobby. I told him I'd be waiting there."

Then, she says, either he or she hung up.

"I sat down and apologized to the woman who had had to hear this. She went on a cruise the first time in her life two years ago, so we talked about that, and I stuck around for about a half hour, and that was that."

Two days later, Dever got a cease-and-desist letter from the attorney for Symphonic Voyages, warning her to stay away from their client.

Robinson says he's heard from six people who'd booked the cruise. "Symphonic Voyages company was an advertising client of ours. Last year they did a cruise just like the one they were trying to do this year. They were a good client, they paid their bills, and the cruise, by all reports, was very successful. . . . Everybody was happy—until they went bankrupt. We have no official connection to them."

Dever says a lawyer referred by the retired teachers association called her, but wanted $1,000, "so I said good-bye to him." She'll be going alone to the creditors' meeting, February 21, arriving early in hopes of connecting with other victims.

And she'll have just returned from a pair of back-to-back bike tours of Florida.

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