Walter Schmitt was born in 1913 in the little town of Gresham; just a small dot on the map located in York County Nebraska. The son of German/Czech immigrants, Walter spent most of his life working in the blacksmith shop opened by his father back in 1904. Amazingly, young Walter was already shoeing horses by the age of five or six!
While the shoeing of horses provided a portion of the income for the blacksmith shop in those early days, the real money came from sharpening and helping to maintain farm equipment. The prosperity of the blacksmith shop was directly tied to the prosperity of the surrounding farm community. Luckily, Nebraska was and is one of the most fertile food producing areas on the planet. Thanks to the large reserve of water contained beneath the earth, Nebraskans were able to turn what was a dry and barren land into a virtual breadbasket. It was in this rural agricultural world that Walter Schmitt was raised and where he developed the values that would help to make him a very rich man.
Walter spent his entire work life in that same family business. During his late teen and early adult years, the Great Depression gripped the nation leaving a lasting impression on Walter. He witnessed first-hand the failure of banks in the area and never wanted to experience the loss and betrayal felt by so many around him.
Due to his experiences during the Depression, Walter had a great mistrust of banks. His solution to the problem was simple, split your money between several institutions to mitigate any potential loss. Walter’s fear of financial loss greatly affected his strategy for building his nest egg as well. While he had some stock investments, he mainly built his wealth through the purchase of savings and treasury bonds as well as CDs, some of which he held for over fifty years.
Walter never went to college himself but had a lifelong love of learning. He was an avid student of history serving for many years on the board of the county historical association, holding the title of vice-president at one time. He also maintained membership in the Nebraska State Historical Society. He belonged to several blacksmith and welder organizations as well as being a volunteer fireman.
Walter went on this way for the majority of his life; working in the family business, pursuing his hobbies and civic duties while investing the majority of his earnings. But all good things must come to an end. The end happened for Walter in 2001 when the shop was sold and he moved permanently to a retirement home in a neighboring community. By all accounts, this was really the best solution as Walter’s earnings the last few years from the shop would best be described as meager. Additionally, Walter had never married and had no relatives in the United States in which to turn to for assistance. Walter died as a resident of the care center in 2008 at the age of 81.
A pretty ordinary life wouldn’t you say? Well, here is where the story gets really interesting. It wasn’t too long after Walter’s death that the University of Nebraska was informed that they were to receive a very sizable gift from a deceased blacksmith from Gresham. Very sizable is an understatement! When all was accounted for, the University received a total gift of $3.5 million from Mr. Walter Schmitt, small town blacksmith and surprise millionaire!
How could this be? Why the University of Nebraska? Walter had never attended the university or any university for that matter. Maybe it was his lack of heirs and his love of education which lead Walter to leave such a surprising gift to the university. That’s all most can figure out. And why not; it seems like an appropriate legacy for a man who valued education and hard work. Don’t you think?
This story begins for me several years ago when I was asked to serve on our church’s finance committee. Even though I wasn’t much of a joiner, I found the idea of learning how the financial life of the church worked very intriguing.
As I arrived for my first committee meeting pen and paper in hand, I was shocked to learn that my first act as a committee member would be a very momentous one. We were to decide the best use for the “estate” left to the church by a deceased parishioner, Mrs. Williams.
It seemed that the estate had been held up in legal proceedings over the past couple of years and was now ready to be released to the beneficiaries; our church being one of them. I thought it was quite nice that this saintly old lady had decided to gift the church with what was left of the blood, sweat and tears of her meager life. Boy was I ever wrong!
The committee was quickly informed that this would be a very important decision due to the size of the estate. It was felt amongst the pastoral staff that the money should be used to pay off the outstanding loan on the current church facility. I was shocked. Kindly old Mrs. Williams, the little lady who had always sat in the fourth pew from the back of the church each and every Sunday had the wherewithal to pay off a seven figure construction loan? Unbelievable!
But that was only part of the story. The church was actually one of several institutions that would benefit from Mrs. Williams’ multi-million dollar estate. Mrs. Williams had been a very wealthy and very generous woman!
I left the meeting that day shaking my head. How could Gladys Williams and her late husband have accumulated all of that wealth? They certainly weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. Mr. Williams had been a postman during his working life and had also sold vacuum cleaners on the side. Mrs. Williams had been a homemaker until her children were grown and had then taken a job at the local library.
I had never had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Williams but Mrs. Williams was, well, rather ordinary. She wore the typical polyester “church lady” suits that could be purchased at any local discount store. Her car had been a mid-priced, American-made model of a completely ordinary nature.
There was no mansion for the multi-million dollar Williams’ either. They lived in a non-descript, but well maintained bungalow style home. There wasn’t even a garage to protect their car from the harsh mid-western winters. Nothing in their outward appearance would give any hint of the great wealth that lay at their disposal.
I didn’t dwell on the matter for too long preferring to characterize the Williams’ as “outliers” in what we like to call the American experience. It just wasn’t natural to have all of that wealth yet not spend even a fraction of it on yourself, was it?
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While Grace Groner seems to have “lucked in to a good thing” with her single purchase of company stock, Verna Oller built her investment portfolio one stock at a time. Born in 1912 Verna married young and had very little formal education. Her early years were very unremarkable. She held jobs that required manual labor such as picking cranberries, shucking oysters and filleting fish, working until she was 76 years old. When she married her husband in 1932 the young couple could easily be described as impoverished; even by Great Depression standards.
Verna’s husband died in 1964 with the union producing no children. Verna continued on alone living frugally. She grew her own vegetables and used a wood stove to heat her home. In her later years she volunteered at a local senior center so she could eat for free.
To the outside world, Verna appeared to be an elderly widow hovering on the poverty line barely making ends meet. But to a lucky few, Mrs. Oller was known as an investment genius!
Verna began to invest in 1979. It’s not indicated what prompted her to begin investing; possibly the approach of her senior years. She began by using a stockbroker but later, after studying the market, Verna decided to give investing a try on her own. She found she had a natural knack for playing the market and never looked back.
Verna and her husband had always made it a practice to set aside a little of their meager salaries for emergencies. That, combined with bequests from a deceased uncle and sister gave Verna the initial seed money used to grow amazing wealth.
A local writer who chronicled Verna’s life stated, “The fact she got interested in investing and learned the process on her own, that was the amazing piece.” Verna was known to pour over the Wall Street Journal researching and planning her investments, “She did a lot of research,” her attorney said, “and was a total equity investor.”
While Verna continued to invest and grow her wealth, the outward appearance of her life changed very little. The fact that she was a multi-millionaire was a closely guarded secret she didn’t want disclosed. “Her story is really unique; I’ve been along for the ride for a long time. (Her money) was a deep, dark secret. She didn’t want anyone coming looking for money”, said Verna’s attorney.
A lady who had lived a life of near poverty accumulates wealth but refuses to spend any? There must be something wrong here, right? Well, crafty old Verna had her own ideas on how her wealth should be used; the results of which would leave an entire town speechless!
Upon her death in 2010, the town of Long Beach Washington learned they were the beneficiaries of Verna’s $4.5 million estate and would become the proud owners of a brand new community swimming pool.
Why a swimming pool of all things? It’s hard to say. Verna is said to have mentioned that she would like to do something with her money that would benefit the whole community young and old alike. I guess a swimming pool seemed like a logical choice.
It is said that the town fathers were a little perplexed by the bequest as well; most likely aware of many other good uses the money could be put toward in the community. That might be so, but this was Verna’s money and things would have to be done her way. So, the Long Beach City Council is currently conducting feasibility studies to best determine if and when a pool will be built.
But crafty old Verna once again got the upper hand. Her will stipulated that the city had seven years in which to begin construction of the pool. There would be plenty of time for all the feasibility studies needed and also the best way to cut through any bureaucratic red tape. I think I am beginning to see why Verna was such a wise investor!
I am so sorry for not posting to the blog lately. I have had a lot of things going on but I think I finally have some time to devote to one of my most favorite subjects – The Surprise Millionaires!