A retired Simsbury, Conn., first-grade teacher died in 2011 at 87, leaving… (John Woike / Hartford Courant )
When an elderly woman showed up at a small law firm several years ago and asked for help managing her estate, an attorney asked her what she thought it was worth.
Kathleen Magowan said she didn't really know. She thought maybe about $40,000.
The real answer? $6 million.
A quiet, unassuming woman who never made headlines during her 87 years, Magowan taught first grade in the northern Connecticut town of Simsbury for 35 years and never brought attention to herself.
She wasn't much of a philanthropist during her life, but Magowan, who died in 2011, is now surprising many with huge donations through her estate to her favorite causes — including nearly $480,000 to her beloved Simsbury public schools, more than $400,000 to the nursing home where she died, and nearly $375,000 to her local parish, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church.
Magowan, who never married, has left more than $5 million to 15 charities, along with money to seven relatives and neighbors.
"When we got wind of it, it was quite a surprise," said Lydia Tedone, chairwoman of the Simsbury Board of Education. "It's a great way to honor the legacy of a very special teacher."
Magowan lived in a comfortable but unspectacular home on busy Route 10 in Simsbury that sold for less than $250,000 — it's not small, but it had not been renovated in decades. She shared that home in her later years with her twin brother, Robert, who also never married and helped her manage her money. He died one year before her, leaving
a gross taxable estate of $3.75 million, according to Simsbury probate records.
Magowan had so many assets and papers squirreled away that it has taken lawyers two years to untangle the estate and realize that she had $6 million. Only recently have the various organizations learned about her generosity.
"We had no idea" that Magowan's portfolio was so substantial, said Diane Burgess, the development director who oversees major gifts at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. Magowan gave the university more than $500,000.
"She was low-key, sweet, compassionate," Burgess said. "You would never know."
Magowan's nearly 100-year-old house on Route 10, known locally as Hopmeadow Street, contained National Geographic magazines dating to 1929, old newspapers, dozens of file folders filled with magazines, record albums from the 1920s along with a record player that still worked, an uncashed check for $2,500 and a life insurance policy dating to 1949. Some items were kept in steamer trunks, while papers were found in files that Magowan made from old cereal boxes.
"They didn't throw anything away," said attorney David Bondanza, who came to know Magowan and did much of the legal work on the estate. "That's the bottom line. There was a lot of history in that house."
The Magowan family fortune started with the work of Kathleen's father, William, who served as the chief financial officer of Ensign-Bickford, a historic company in Simsbury that is known for making explosives.
Living a frugal lifestyle, Magowan had relatively few expenses. With no children or grandchildren, she had no day-care expenses or college tuition to pay. She had no mortgage after inheriting the family home from her parents. As the decades went by, Magowan changed virtually nothing from the days when her parents lived in the home.
"The clothes in the closet were still there from the parents," said attorney Louis George, whose law firm handled her estate. "Still in the drawer in 2012 was the minutes of the 1955 Ensign-Bickford board meeting."
In one of the most stunning discoveries in the house, a neighbor who was helping the attorneys found a Quaker Oats can in a closet that contained savings bonds from the 1940s and 1950s, largely in small denominations of $50 and $100.
The attorneys had no idea what the bonds might be worth, but some research indicated that the papers in the can were worth $183,000.