Wisdom of the Ages

The clock is ticking. For those of you who haven't organized your tax returns yet, the tax man lurketh.

And while it might be tempting to hit the party circuit in hopes of finding a genius accountant, perhaps there's a better way.

At the Malley Senior Recreation Center in Englewood, volunteer tax counselors are on duty the next two Fridays to help. But these are not your average financial gurus; they're members of the elder generation, looking to impart their wisdom -- gratis.

Ruth Steck, 87, a former civil-service finance officer, began offering the free service with her late husband 24 years ago; she now has fourteen senior-citizen counselors who donate their time.

"We're an old bunch, but we do people's taxes for nothing," Steck says, adding that age hasn't dulled the acumen of the former bankers and IRS agents. "The average person doesn't understand all that goobly-gook. We know finance."

And that knowledge will be, er, taxed, because the more than 400 tax-law changes passed with the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act of 2001 are keeping this aged group in demand. "Oh, gosh, are we busy," Steck says. "We're always crowded." So far this year, they've worked on more than 450 returns. They expect to top the 665 they helped prepare in 2001.

Steck, the oldest of the counselors, can testify to the dedication of her volunteers. "They don't leave us until they die," she says of her younger counterparts. "I'm getting kind of old, but I'll get there as long as I can."

According to the IRS, the American population was split down the middle last year, with about half of the 132 million tax returns filed prepared by professionals and half filled out by the individuals filing them. Steck, who starts organizing her taxes in December, cautions those seeking help not to procrastinate, because after April 12, there won't be anyone at the senior center to help.

"I don't give advice to people who file late," she says. "That's their problem. They know it has to be done." -- Julie Dunn

 
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