Last month, your Motley Fool Answers cohosts Robert Brokamp and Alison Southwick debuted a new recurring segment for the show: "The Philanthropist Next Door." This new series of profiles features millionaires whose wealth stayed under the radar all their lives -- until they bequeathed big money to worthy causes.
In this episode, we meet not one but four philanthropists who lived full (though frugal) lives, and via the power of long-term investing, amassed fortunes that they dedicated to charity after their deaths.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 7, 2018.
Robert Brokamp: Ding dong!
Alison Southwick: Who's there?
Brokamp: It's the philanthropist! The philanthropist next door!
Southwick: I don't know why that's funny.
Brokamp: So, a few episodes ago, as longtime listeners will remember, we launched a new segment we're calling The Philanthropist Next Door, which profiles people who have lived seemingly financially modest lives but actually accumulated impressive wealth that they used to make the world a better place.
Rick Engdahl: Or they collect stamps. One or the other.
Brokamp: Or something like that. In the first installment we delved into the story of Oseola McCarty, a washer woman from Mississippi who accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars that she then used to create a scholarship fund that has been helping students for more than 20 years and is set up to continue for decades to come.
Southwick: That's a great story.
Brokamp: It is a great story. This week, though, we go for more breadth than depth by profiling four other people who turned their frugality into philanthropy.
First up, No. 1 is Genevieve Via Cava. Genevieve began teaching in the schools of Bergen County, New Jersey in 1945 and she taught general ed and special ed kids until she retired in 1990. She lived in the home she grew up in. She was known to clip coupons. Known to be pretty frugal. She scolded friends if they went out to eat too often.
She was married but she didn't have kids. One example of her frugality was told by a friend of hers named Richard Jablonski who also ended up being the executor of her estate. As she got older and started losing her hearing, she refused to spend the $4,000 on new hearing aids, and she told him, "Don't be foolish with money, Richard. It's not how much money you earn. It's how much you save."
Southwick: Actually what she said was, "Don't be foolish with money, Richard!!!"
Brokamp: That's probably true.
Southwick: Was I far enough from the mic for that?
Brokamp: But when she died in 2011, her estate was worth several million dollars. Of that amount she left $100,000 to the Salvation Army, $100,000 each to the country's animal shelters, and $1 million to the school district for whom she worked which will provide college scholarships to a special needs student each year and perhaps two scholarships depending on how the investments in the trust perform. Jablonski told People magazine, "Genevieve was very smart. She knew finances and now she'd be thrilled to hear that the interest, alone, from her $1 million gift to the school district will pay for a scholarship every year. She was a strict teacher, but she loved those kids. They meant the world to her and now her legacy will live on forever."
No. 2. Ronald Reid. Reid was born in 1921. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and he had to walk every day, or hitchhike, to get to the school. He served in World War II and then he returned home to Vermont. Married a woman who had two kids. He worked at a gas station for 25 years and then he retired. He found retirement kind of boring, so he went back to work as a janitor for J.C. Penney's and then retired in 1997. According to his lawyer, he had two favorite hobbies: chopping wood and investing.
One of his friends said, "I'm sure that if he earned $50 in one week he probably invested $40." According to The Wall Street Journal, he owned at least 95 stocks at the time of his death in 2014, many of which he held on for decades. His attorney said that he only invested in what he knew and what paid dividends, so companies like AT&T, John Deere, Procter & Gamble.
At his death his portfolio was worth more than $8 million and most of it he left to the local library and the local hospital; not because he needed the healthcare, but he went to the hospital's cafeteria every morning and ordered the same thing.
He lived so frugally few people knew about his wealth. There's a video about his life. His house was actually pretty nice. A very lovely town in Vermont, but not even his stepson knew how much money he had. In fact, he said the only clue was that he read The Wall Street Journal every day.
No. 3 is Sylvia Bloom. Sylvia was the child of Eastern European immigrants and grew up in Brooklyn. In 1947, she began working as a legal secretary at a Wall Street law firm and she kept that job for 67 years learning about investing from the lawyers she worked with. Her niece told The New York Times, "she was a secretary in an era when they ran their boss's lives, including their personal investments."
Southwick: Wait! What? Oh, wow! So she would actually call and execute the actual transactions.
Brokamp: Yes, she was like an administrative assistant type of thing. When the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him and then buy the same stock for herself but, of course, in smaller amounts because she was on a secretary's salary.
She and her husband, who was a firefighter, teacher, and a part-time pharmacist [that's kind of interesting] lived modestly but comfortably in a rent-controlled apartment. When she died in 2016 at the age of 96 her portfolio was worth more than $9 million.
She left more than $6 million to the Henry Street Settlement for disadvantaged students in New York. Part of the money will be used to help students from 9th grade through college graduation with free counseling, tutoring, SAT prep, and college visits. She also left $1 million to her alma mater, Hunter College, and created a scholarship fund with another $1 million.
And lastly No. 4 is Leonard Gigowski. So like Ronald Reid, Gigowski also served in World War II, specifically as a cook in the Navy. When he returned to his home town in Wisconsin, he worked as a butcher in a grocery store, receiving some company stock that he held onto for a very long time, and then when he sold it he bought some other stocks. He eventually opened up his own grocery store, and then a nightclub, and then a dance studio...
He never married, but a few times a week he'd go out in a tux for some ballroom dancing. He also kept 50 to 100 pigeons that he raced, even winning a few trophies. But those were pretty much his only extravagances. One of his friends said this about Gigowski. "He was a tight man. Leonard would buy shoes at discount, even if they didn't fit him, just to save a buck. He wanted to save money and give it to people needier than he was."
While he was alive he began funding scholarships for the Catholic high school that he attended when he was young, which back then was a seminary. Gigowski, like yours truly, at one point was studying to be a priest. For his 90th birthday the school surprised him by assembling the students to sing "Happy Birthday" to him. He passed away in 2015 leaving the school $13 million as a scholarship fund, which will disburse 5% of its assets every year and thus is set up to last in perpetuity.
I got a few takeaways from these stories. Obviously the first takeaway is you don't need a large salary to build a large portfolio. You just have to prioritize where your money goes and time. Keep an eye on your spending and start as early as possible.
No. 2 is if you are inspired to leave money to charity, get good legal help. You don't want family members disputing the bequest. Via Cava, the teacher who left the special ed scholarship died in 2011, but the school just found out this year about the inheritance. I don't know why that is. I don't know if some relatives came out of the woodwork and tried to dispute it.
I read another article about a man who had neither kids nor a wife. He died and left all his money to the people who ran his apartment. Then a long-lost nephew showed up and tried to get some of the money, so they had to go to court because his will was just written on paper. Basically, if you want to do something like this, make sure you get good, legal help so the money goes to where you want.
And third, don't go nuts. If you read online some of the comments about these articles written about these people, some do think that some of these people take it too far. They go a little too crazy with the frugality, maybe denying themselves some healthcare that they needed. Maybe they should have taken a few more trips. I think the people we talk about, here, are perfectly reasonable, but there are other stories that I come across where people really denied themselves too much in order to accumulate a lot of money.
So while I like the message of what all these people are trying to do, obviously you should enjoy some of it and don't deny yourself the things that you really need. But some people do enjoy spending money on clothes, on travel, on things; but, other people do value financial security and financial peace of mind, and really value spending money on ways that will help other people and in a lot of ways the world is a better place because of it.