Chicago Tribune: Lake Forest College alum Grace Groner donated $7 million -- and this modest house that she called home -- to the school upon her death in January at age 100. Before her death, she had also funded a scholarship program at the college.
Like many people who lived through the Great Depression, Grace Groner was exceptionally restrained with her money.
She got her clothes from rummage sales. She walked everywhere rather than buy a car. And her one-bedroom house in Lake Forest held little more than a few plain pieces of furniture, some mismatched dishes and a hulking TV set that appeared left over from the Johnson administration.
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 passed away in January, at the age of 100, her attorney informed the college president what that gift added up to.
"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 enable many of Lake Forest's 1,300 students to pursue internships and study-abroad programs they otherwise might have had to forgo. It will be an appropriate memorial to a woman whose life was a testament to the higher possibilities of wealth.
"She did not have the (material) needs that other people have," said William Marlatt, her attorney and longtime friend. "She could have lived in any house in Lake Forest but she chose not to. ... 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 Lake County farming community, but by the time she was 12 both of her parents had died. She was taken in by George Anderson, a member of one of Lake Forest's leading families and an apparent friend to Groner's parents.
The Andersons raised her and her twin sister, Gladys, and paid for them to attend Lake Forest College. After Groner graduated in 1931, she took a job at nearby Abbott Laboratories, where she would work as a secretary for 43 years.
It was early in her time there that she made a decision that would secure her financial future.
In 1935, she bought three $60 shares of specially issued Abbott stock and never sold them. The shares split many times over the next seven decades, 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 is one of America's richest towns, filled with grand estates and teeming with 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 single bedroom could barely accommodate a twin bed and dresser; its living room was undoubtedly smaller than many Lake Forest closets.
Though Groner was frugal, she was no miser. She traveled widely upon her retirement from Abbott, volunteered for decades at the First Presbyterian Church and occasionally funneled anonymous gifts through Marlatt to needy local residents.
"She was very sensitive to people not having a whole lot," said Pastor Kent Kinney of First Presbyterian. "Grace would see those people, would know them, and she would make gifts."
Groner never wed or had children -- the sister of one prospective groom blocked the marriage, Marlatt said -- but with her gregarious personality she had plenty of friends. She remained connected to Lake Forest College, too, attending football games and cultural events on campus and donating $180,000 for a scholarship program.
That allowed a few students a year to study internationally, including Erin McGinley, 34, a junior from Lake Zurich. She traveled to Falmouth, Jamaica, to help document and preserve historic buildings in the former slave port. The experience was so satisfying that she is trying to get Lake Forest to create a similar architectural preservation program.
"It affected my (career ambitions) in a way I didn't expect," she said.
But Groner was interested in doing more, so two years ago she set up a foundation to receive her estate. Stephen Schutt, Lake Forest's president, knew of the plan for the past year, but had no idea how large the gift would be until after Groner passed away Jan. 19.
The foundation's millions should generate more than $300,000 a year for the college, enabling dozens more students to travel and pursue internships. Many probably wouldn't be able to pursue those opportunities without a scholarship: 75 percent of the student body receives financial aid, Schutt said.
But the study and internship program is not the end of Groner's legacy. She left that small house to the college, too. It will be turned into living quarters for women who receive foundation scholarships, and perhaps something more: an enduring symbol that money can buy far more than mansions.
It will be called, with fitting simplicity, "Grace's Cottage."
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