Tuesday, April 6, 1999

Uncle Bill's Investing Lesson

by Rob Ortiz

Uncle Bill Healy was quite a guy. He married Aunt Mae sometime around 1936. (Actually, Aunt Mae is my wife's mom's sister, so she's not really my aunt at all.) Last week my brother-in-law and I traveled up to the Bronx to help move Mae out of her apartment and into my mother-in-law's place. Mae has lived for 52 years in the same place; she was 91 last January 3. Since she can no longer manage the daily tasks of living by herself in a third-story walk-up, she'll be spending the rest of her years living with her sister. Fortunately for Mae, Uncle Bill has taken good care of her, even though he died in 1978.

From the great depression until his retirement, Bill worked as a machinist for the IRT subway line in New York City. He never earned a great deal. In fact, last week I found a file of papers that held copies of his salary actions from years starting in 1941. That year, after his favorable review and raise, he was making $1.05 an hour. At least he had a semi-skilled job coming out of the depression. He also had a personal interest in the stock market. The family tells stories about Uncle Bill taking up the morning paper with his coffee in hand, and turning first to the financial section to review the news of the day. It must be true, since I also found a file of Bill's work papers along with news clippings about companies he was probably considering for his stock purchases. I found other notebooks tracking his portfolio performance, and records of purchases, costs, and dividend payments over several years. At the time, I reflected whether Bill somehow knew about the Foolish Four even before Tom and Dave.

I have not filled in all the blanks, but based on a quick estimate of 40-some years of work, earning at the peak years still less than $10,000 a year, Uncle Bill probably made less than $200K in his lifetime. I am not there yet, but I personally know several people who make more than this amount in a single year. Yet Bill took considerable time to calculate his savings, and he invested in stocks. Yeah, I found the stock certificates he left behind, too. Lots of shares: Exxon, Alcan Aluminum, International Telephone and Telegraph, Gould, John Hancock, and more. (The share certificates were all issued prior to 1970, so the number of shares reflected on the documents is before splits.) Some companies are well known, some are from the middle of the pile. But all still mail their little dividend checks to Aunt Mae.

I am very happy for Aunt Mae when I think about the man she married more than 63 years ago. He continues to care for her financial well being through his actions when they were together. I am humbled by this man I never met. Starting from only $40 a week gross income, the worth of his portfolio today is greater than his total earnings for his entire lifetime. Yes, Uncle Bill was quite a guy.

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