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A hidden millionaire's college gift

Grace Groner leaves $7 million to her Illinois alma mater. Few friends knew of her wealth.

March 06, 2010|By John Keilman
  • Grace GronerÂ’s one-bedroom Lake Forest house was also left to the school. It will house students who receive scholarships from her foundation.
Grace GronerÂ’s one-bedroom Lake Forest house was also left… (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Chicago — Like many people who lived through the Depression, Grace Groner was exceptionally restrained with her money.

She got her clothes from rummage sales, walked rather than buy a car. And her one-bedroom house in Lake Forest, Ill., held little more than a few plain pieces of furniture, some mismatched dishes and an old television.

Her one splurge was a small scholarship program she had created for Lake Forest College, her alma mater. She planned to contribute more upon her death, and when she died in January at 100, her attorney informed the college president that the gift had added up.

"Oh, my God," the president said.

Groner's estate, which stemmed from a $180 stock purchase she made in 1935, was worth $7 million.

The money is going into a foundation that will allow many of Lake Forest's 1,300 students to pursue internships and study-abroad programs.

"She could have lived in any house in Lake Forest, but she chose not to," said William Marlatt, her attorney and longtime friend. "She enjoyed other people, and every friend she had was a friend for who she was. They weren't friends for what she had."

Groner was born in a small Illinois farming community, but by the time she was 12 both of her parents had died. She and her twin sister, Gladys, were taken in by George Anderson, a member of one of Lake Forest's leading families.

The Andersons raised the girls and paid for them to attend Lake Forest College. After Groner graduated in 1931, she took a job at nearby Abbott Laboratories, where she worked as a secretary for 43 years.

In 1935 she bought three $60 shares of specially issued Abbott stock and never sold them. The shares split many times over the years, Marlatt said, and Groner reinvested the dividends. Long before she died, her initial outlay had become a fortune.

Marlatt was one of the few who knew about it. Lake Forest, just north of Chicago, is one of America's richest towns, filled with grand estates and luxury cars, yet Groner felt no urge to keep up with the neighbors.

She lived in an apartment for many years before a friend willed her a tiny house in a part of town once reserved for the servants. Its living room was smaller than many Lake Forest closets.

Though Groner was frugal, she was no miser. She traveled widely upon her retirement and occasionally funneled anonymous gifts through Marlatt to needy local residents.

Groner never married or had children, but she had a gregarious personality and plenty of friends. She remained connected to the college, attending football games and donating $180,000 to create the scholarship program.

But Groner was interested in doing more, so two years ago she set up a foundation to receive her estate. The foundation's millions should generate more than $300,000 a year for the college.

She left her house to the college too, and it will be turned into living quarters for women who receive foundation scholarships. It will be called, with fitting simplicity, "Grace's Cottage."

jkeilman@tribune.com

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