Born in Bastrop Texas in 1914, Whitlowe Green came of age during the Great Depression as well as the days of racial segregation. Both of these factors played an important role in developing the character of a man who was able to build a happy life in spite of the world’s challenges.
The youngest of three children, in 1936 Whitlowe graduated from the historic African-American college Prairie View A&M University, located in Prairie View Texas. He soon went to work for the Houston Independent School District teaching economics earning $700 a year. A tidy little sum for that place and time but hardly the makings of a future millionaire!
However, Whitlowe had an ace up his sleeve. You see, his area of expertise, the subject that he taught for many decades, was economics. Whitlowe wasn’t just a teacher of sound economic principals, he lived them as well.
Whitlowe was well known for being frugal; very frugal. In fact, the stories of his frugality are legend within his extended family.
He never bought his clothing new; always choosing to wear second-hand garments. He was also fond of shopping at auctions. He certainly lived by the old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”! He lived in a modest brick house in northwest Houston his only luxury being a late-model Cadillac.
Family legend has it that he actually stopped speaking to a relative for two years over a $6.76 debt (Whitlowe was the one accused of owing the money).
He spent most of his career teaching at Yates High School. By all accounts, he was well liked by students and fellow educators alike. It is said that laughter could always be heard emanating from his classroom. When asked, former students remembered Mr. Green fondly. He obviously found a way to make economics fun for the average teenager and left a lasting impression on his students.
He had a dedication to education and young people. His goal in life was to help African-American children receive an education. I’m sure that most people thought he was accomplishing that dream by dedicating himself to the teaching profession; but Mr. Green had no intention of stopping there, not by a long shot!
After over forty years in the school district, Mr. Green retired in 1983. His salary that year reached $28,000. Again, a nice sum for that place and time but nothing that would give anyone the idea that Mr. Green, the beloved economics teacher at Yates High School was “well off”.
Mr. Green or neither of his siblings ever married. All that is known about Green’s financial strategy is that he received a small inheritance that he rolled over into stocks, mutual funds and annuities. That combined with his frugal lifestyle made Whitlowe a very wealthy man.
After his death in 2002 both family and friends alike were shocked to discover that Mr. Green had left $2.1 million to his alma mater, Prairie View A&M – the school’s largest single donor gift in its history!
Prairie View now awards yearly $2,000 scholarships from the Seth L. Green Family Scholarship Fund — named for Green’s father. The scholarships are awarded in the fields of home economics, nursing, business management and social sciences.
But the accolades didn’t stop there. As of 2007, the university became the home to the Whitlowe R. Green College of Education named in honor of the college’s largest benefactor.
What a wonderful tribute to a man who spent his entire career, and adult life, working to give children an education and a chance for a better life.
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?