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She lived frugally, donated millions

Washington state woman left her $4.5 million estate to worthy causes. Hardly anyone knew she was wealthy.

By Karen Datko Jun 3, 2010 7:26PM

Even among stories of people who lived frugal lives and bequeathed millions to good causes upon their demise, the life of Verna Oller of Long Beach, Wash., is truly remarkable. She was our kind of gal.


According to stories in The Seattle Times and the Chinook Observer, Oller was a committed do-it-yourselfer who embraced the simple life. She labored until age 76 in jobs like picking cranberries, shucking oysters, and working in restaurants -- waiting tables, prepping food, whatever was required.


A widow since 1964, she grew her own organic vegetables and heated her home with a woodstove -- still able to split and stack wood, too, well into her 90s -- until she moved to a retirement home in 2007. 


She also researched her own investments, studying The Wall Street Journal after her lawyer had finished with his copy. Upon her death last month at age 98, 31 years after she began investing, she had an estate worth $4.5 million. The Times reports:

She donated $500,000 to a public-school endowment and another $500,000 to a foundation to be used for student scholarships and grants to teachers. The rest she left to the city of Long Beach to build an indoor swimming pool.

(City officials are wisely examining whether the local government could afford the considerable expense of upkeep if the pool is built. How many small and medium-size towns have found themselves in that dilemma? We suspect Oller would appreciate their frugal approach.)


We can anticipate some of your questions:


How can a person be happy while taking frugality to extremes? Yes, she was extremely conservative with her spending, but what of it? "She really was one of a kind, and the best thing about her is she was totally happy," said Carolyn Glenn, her lawyer's wife and a close friend. Oller may have cut her own hair, but she also traveled extensively with her sister. We call those priorities.


Did she have children? No. That eliminated a big expense.

Did she build her wealth from scratch? She had some help accumulating such a large estate. She and her husband had a $10,000 nest egg when he died. A sister left her $600,000.

Her choice of investments? Mutual funds. "I read and I learned,” she told writer Sydney Stevens several years ago. (Oller swore Stevens to secrecy about her wealth until her death.) "At first I invested in stocks but now I pretty much deal with mutual funds. I've made some mistakes. I lost about one-fourth of all of it a few years back, but I've recovered it all and more."

Before the last market downturn, her wealth stood at $5 million.


As these stories usually go, people were amazed to find out she had so much money. "It came as a total shock," Long Beach city manager Gene Miles told the Times. "No one had a clue. This is not something she wore on her sleeve by a long shot."


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