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Death Provides No Insight Into 85 Years of Life

Mystery: Dorothy Duncan named a church and a hospital beneficiaries. But no one can seem to find her money.


FILLMORE — By some measures, Dorothy Duncan's life didn't add up to much.

For 85 years, the slight woman who spoke so softly you had to strain to hear her did things she could do alone. She sewed her own dresses and stitched intricate quilts. She tended her garden and took vibrant bouquets to church, where she sat up front in the widows' row.

She never married. At her parents' insistence, she left school early, caring for them until they died.

But when she died last spring, Dorothy Marie Duncan counted for a lot more. In her will, she left everything she owned--six rental houses and her own home, worth more than $600,000--to Faith Community Church and to the small Santa Paula hospital that cared for her in her last, sickly years.

With that bequest, Dorothy Duncan ended a solitary life with an act of remarkable consequence to two small-town institutions that embraced her when she needed them, and that she can now help in turn.

"This gift is immensely important," church elder Keith McLain said. The $275,000 to $300,000 that the church is likely to get from the sale of Dorothy's houses will nearly pay off a construction loan used to build the modest, one-story stucco church five years ago, he said.

Or, the 135-member congregation--a social cross-section including working-class families and the city's mayor--could use some of the money to recruit and pay a permanent minister. The last one quit over the summer, taking a teaching job.

Ten miles down Highway 126 toward Ventura, tiny Santa Paula Hospital can also use Dorothy's help. It has lost money on operations for years, and the donation will help the hospital stay in business.

Even including the area's most prominent families, Dorothy's gift is one of the largest ever received, administrator William Greene said. "Obviously, this is a major gift for a small hospital like Santa Paula."

That such a quiet, self-effacing woman could emerge as a major benefactor to two struggling institutions is remarkable enough. But there is more to Dorothy's story.

When the executors of her estate inventoried her possessions, they found almost no money in the bank.

Everybody assumed she had a bundle stashed away. Her six rental houses each earned her $700 to $800 a month. And she was frugal. She drove a 1964 Dodge Dart, made her own clothes and furnished her home simply. Her only extravagance was a computerized sewing machine she bought new in 1992.

So, in death, Dorothy Duncan became both a blessing and an intriguing mystery for those she left behind.

No Sight of a Money Trail

"Where is the money? That's what we want to know," Greene said. "Frankly, we're mystified. We're at dead ends."

Born in Fresno in 1913, Dorothy was the daughter of Claude and Ethel Duncan, migrants from rural Bolivar, Mo. The family moved to Fillmore about 80 years ago. Like Dorothy, her mother was quiet; a homemaker and dutiful wife to a laboring man who rose to foreman at a packing shed.

The Duncans built small wood frame houses along a half-block of sycamore-lined Saratoga Street, close to downtown. Dorothy's grandparents moved in, so did two of her aunts and an uncle.

Peggy Myers, who rented one of the houses from the Duncans in 1942, said Dorothy learned personal reserve from her parents.

"They were such nice people, but they were very different in the way they all lived together," Myers said. "They didn't seem to socialize. They stayed home."

On their rare outings, the whole family packed themselves into a single car. Neighbors remember them taking just one trip--back to Missouri.

Claude could be sociable on occasion. Sometimes, he joined other men for a game of snooker after work. Everybody in town brought him their lawn mowers, hoes and shears for sharpening.

But where Dorothy was concerned, Claude and Ethel were obsessively protective. Even as an adult, when she fetched the mail, her mother emerged from their little white house to make sure no harm came to her full-grown child.

Tommy Whiteley, a neighbor since 1955, remembers asking Dorothy if she wanted to walk across the street to watch a new house being built.

"She was in her 50s, but she said, 'Let me go ask mama,' " Whiteley recalled. "I thought that was terrible. And she never went to town by herself until after they all died."

In fact, several of Dorothy's acquaintances said they never knew her at all until her father died in 1978. And even then, she remained an abstract, self-contained presence.

"I knew her for years and years, and she always looked the same," remembers Pat Rees, a church friend. "She wore a net on her hair, just like her mother and her auntie. She wore her own dresses. And she was always made up."

Church elder McLain knew Dorothy at two different churches, but never really penetrated her inner world.

"She liked to be her own person," he said. "She had a lady who took care of her. That's who she wanted at her house. And that's it."

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