Charlie Shor says he had his first seizure at age 25 while he was in an airport.
It came a few years before Shor was abducted, put in a 4-foot pit, tied to a stake and held for $250,000 ransom.
It happened before his father passed away, leaving him in charge of Florence-based Duro Bag Manufacturing Co., a company that Shor says was overleveraged and vulnerable to a transformational market shift from paper to plastic bags.
Dr. Michael Privitera (left) and Charlie Shor, CEO of Duro Bag, discuss the use of a mobile app to keep a daily diary. / The Enquirer/Gary Landers
Those things would come later, but at the time of his first seizure, Shor had already gone through a major life change by working as a vice president at the company his father started in 1953. He was under major stress and didn’t even recognize it.
Shor doesn’t believe the stress he was feeling, and that first seizure, are coincidental. He’s convinced that stress is responsible for his epilepsy.
It’s why Shor has contributed more than $1 million to the University of Cincinnati to establish the Charles L. Shor Foundation for Epilepsy Research, which is working to educate doctors and patients on how stress impacts people with epilepsy.
UC is conducting a study on the relationship between stress and seizures that’s being led by Shor’s neurologist, Dr. Michael Privitera of the University of Cincinnati and Dr. Sheryl R. Haut at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Privitera is director of the Epilepsy Center at the UC Neuroscience Institute. At a minimum, he wants stress to be part of the evaluation when young people have their first seizure.
“Charlie’s really been a visionary in leading us and saying, ‘This is a real thing, it’s real with me.’ We have to start figuring this out,” Privitera says.
Shor and Privitera are seeking about 80 people with epilepsy to volunteer for the study. To increase awareness, Shor gave a rare interview with The Enquirer and discussed his life with epilepsy.
Shor also wants people with epilepsy to know they can still succeed. Today, he’s chief executive officer of Duro Bag, the largest paper bag manufacturer in the world. The company makes more than 20 billion bags a year for clients including Kroger, Walmart, Nordstrom and American Eagle.
“I hope that people recognize when they have seizures that it can be stress-related,” Shor says. “I want those people to recognize that their success isn’t limited by anything other than themselves.”
Shor’s attacks may be tied to his stress
Shor’s a tightly compacted bundle of energy whose voice can change from a whisper to a roar in a few short words, usually when punctuating a story he thinks is funny. By any measure, he’s a hugely successful businessman whose expertise and acumen commands respect.
“Charlie is a very sharp individual. He’s a smart guy,” says George Schaefer, former chief executive officer of Fifth Third Bank.
“I remember going out to his plant, and he knew every employee that he had, he knew their family. He would spend more than 7 by 24 – he’d spend 8 by 25 working at that company. Not only that, but he knew his customers amazingly well.”
Today, Duro Bag employs more than 2,500 and has plants throughout the United States and Mexico. The privately owned company does not disclose revenues. Shor has made enough money to provide for the next several generations of his family. He’s not asking for anybody’s sympathy.
But he says stress and epilepsy have exacted a steep price on him.
“There have been multiple instances where he’s been involved in an acutely stressful situation, and within minutes to an hour will have a seizure,” says Privitera, who has been Shor’s doctor since 2000.
“I don’t think I know any other patient where there’s such a direct correlation. He’s sort of the poster boy for stress-induced seizures.”
Today, thanks to “having two wonderful daughters” and a successful life, Shor says he’s a lucky man.
But despite the company’s success, the 58-year-old Shor says he wishes he’d done things different in his work life after that first seizure at age 25, and doesn’t want other people to make the mistake he made.
Suddenly, plastic bags exploded
Shor grew up in Bond Hill, went to Woodward High School, and then the University of Michigan. He studied economics, and met Gardner Ackley, who worked for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Paul McCracken, who served under President Richard Nixon.
Inspired by the men, Shor thought about pursuing a Ph.D. in economics and following their footsteps in a government career. His professors encouraged him to take a different path.
“They said, ‘Your grades are good, you should get an MBA, and that will be a lot better for you,’ ” Shor says laughing. “ ‘You’re not going to make it at this level, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you are!’ ”
After graduating from Michigan, Shor worked for two years, then considered attending The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for an MBA. Instead, he decided to work full time at Duro Bag. He found himself in the middle of a fight between his father and a minor partner in the company.
“(The partner) looked at me as taking his job and was naturally upset,” Shor says. The minor partner was bought out, but a bigger problem was on the horizon: plastics.
“Everything was paper. There weren’t plastic bags,” Shor says. “One minute, Walmart is all in paper, then they go to plastic. Everybody goes to plastic.”
The paper market at the time was about 1.5 million tons. It would eventually be cut by 80 percent. The industry was about to go through a major consolidation.
Shor found himself traveling five days a week to Duro Bag’s various properties and meeting with customers. “Intellectually I could handle it, but it was way too much pressure.”
Attacks start, then he was kidnapped
That first seizure, he says, came in New York City. He got off the plane and intended to grab a cab to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where he was scheduled to have dinner. He was about to get into the cab when the seizure hit.
He says the next thing he knew he was in an ambulance. More seizures soon followed, usually in airports. His doctors said Shor was among the 50 percent of people where a cause couldn’t be identified, and they put him on medication.
A friend who was in medical school had a different theory. The friend thought Shor’s stressful lifestyle prompted the seizure and suggested that Shor take a year off.
Shor didn’t take the advice and kept working. Shor says he wishes his doctors at that time had gone beyond physical examinations and talked to him about other things that were going on in his life given that he was 25 and healthy at the time of the first seizure.
Shor encountered a whole new level of stress three years later.
At the time he lived alone at a country estate near Hebron. On July 7, 1982, Shor returned home about 11:30 p.m. and was getting out of his car when two men approached. Both were wearing rubber gloves and ski masks; one had a gun.
They handcuffed him, covered his eyes and put him back in his car. They drove to an isolated section of A.J. Jolly Park, south of Alexandria, where they put him in an earthen pit. They called Shor’s father, Duro Bag president S. Davis Shor, and demanded $250,000 or he wouldn’t see his son alive again.
“I told them, ‘If you kill me, you’re going to get the death penalty if they catch you.’ They said, ‘You worry about that, we’re not going to,’ ” Shor says.
Early in the morning of July 9, the men took Shor to the spot where he would be exchanged for the money. His father was waiting and initially didn’t see his son. He called for his son. Shor managed to escape from his captors and ran toward his father’s voice. The two escaped in the elder Shor’s car.
The two men, one of whom was a Duro Bag employee, were caught and sentenced to prison.
The irony, Shor says, is that he didn’t suffer a seizure once during the ordeal. The same body that was causing him so many problems protected him when he needed it most.
“I almost think that there’s a sense of strength in your body when you need it,” Shor says.
He did, however, seek psychiatric help with Dr. James Titchener, a founding member of the Cincinnati Pyschoanalytic Institute, after Shor’s running partner made an observation following the abduction.
“He said, ‘You know, you really do have issues.’ I said, ‘What to you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Well, every time you’re running, the reason you might think I’m faster than you are is only because you’re always looking around!’ ”
Fighting for his company’s survival
Shor survived that ordeal, but his stressful lifestyle continued. After his father died, Shor was left to run a company that he says was overleveraged. He also was watching the growing popularity of plastic bags eat into Duro Bag’s market share.
Duro Bag’s debt-holder at the time put the pressure on, he said.
“They had a good relationship with my father, and my father had money behind him, so they always felt like he’d pay off. When my Dad died, they came in and said, ‘We know you don’t have any money. You’ve got 52 percent of a something that’s worth nothing.’ ”
Duro Bag cut staff and did everything it could to maximize efficiency. It was painful, Shor says. He was having seizures once a month.
The company ultimately survived by taking an industry that was dramatically declining and purchasing effectively 17 different companies. Shor says things started to turn around when he met Schaefer at Fifth Third Bank. Over a series of meetings, Shor went through Duro Bag’s business and strategic plan with Schaefer, and asked if Fifth Third would take over part of its debt. Schaefer said he’d take the entire loan.
“That was the best day for me,” Shor says.
Schaefer says while Fifth Third did its due diligence on Shor, Shor was doing the same with Fifth Third.
“He was really looking for someone who would trust him and his vision. He wasn’t just going to say, ‘My dad had the business, and I’m going to maintain it,’ ” Schaeffer says. “He really wanted somebody he could trust. I think he found out through a couple of contacts that when we said something, he could really rely on it.”
Study could help reduce seizures
Shor is one of approximately 3 million people in the United States who suffer from seizures. Some kinds of epilepsy are genetic, other types are caused by brain injuries, Privitera says. Some people have five to 10 seizures a month; others have a handful annually.
The new study, Privitera says, reflects the fact that about 50 percent of patients say stress either makes their seizures worse, or makes it more likely that they will have a seizure.
Privetera says the study could lead to stress-reduction techniques to help control the frequency and intensity of seizures.
It’s harder, he says, to prove Shor’s theory that stress can cause epilepsy. Privetera is not convinced that Shor could have avoided having seizures entirely had he taken a year off from work.
“I don’t know. Three years ago I would have said no way, but now I’m absolutely convinced that there’s a strong link between stress and epilepsy,” Privitera says.
Both agree that it’s important to study the link between stress and seizures to give patients and their doctors more ammunition to manage the condition.
“Did I make the right decision? No. I made the wrong decision,” Shor says of his decision to keep working after that first seizure. “And that’s why I’ve put this money up, because I don’t want other kids to make that same wrong decision.
“But I also want them to realize that even if you have these things happen to you, you can end up turning out to be a half-decent person. What’s holding you back isn’t necessarily (epilepsy). That’s why I put this money into this.”