Emma Howe loved to take friends to lunch, but never tipped more than a dollar. She enjoyed the races but always made small wagers. She usually rode the bus, rarely splurged on a taxi.
Emma Howe was worth millions, but she was a woman of many contradictions. Her legacy may be the biggest one.
Twenty-seven months after her death, Emma Howe lives on--in tremendous generosity. She left what now amounts to $31 million to the people of Minnesota.
This month, the Emma B. Howe Memorial Foundation, set up in December, distributed its first grants--nearly $1 million to 37 organizations that serve the poor and minorities, women and children, the handicapped and the unemployed.
“What a wonderful way to leave a legacy to the community,” said Marion Etzwiler, executive director of the Minneapolis Foundation, which manages the assets of the fund.
Nearly 240 proposals were reviewed before the first recipients of Emma’s largess were chosen. Another $1 million will be distributed in March; after that, grants will total $1.3 million to $1.5 million a year.
Got in on Ground Floor
Emma’s wealth came from hard work and good luck, from being in the right place at the right time. She wasn’t an entrepreneur. She didn’t run a business, but she invested wisely and held onto her stock.
And what stock it was: more than 700,000 shares (when Emma’s estate was distributed) in a check-printing company she helped to found during World War I. Today, Deluxe Check Printers Inc. is the nation’s largest. It prints more than half the checks used in America.
When Emma Howe died in July, 1984, there were few signs of the independent person she had been for most of her 94 years. The woman who once loved to dance needed a wheelchair to move around. The woman who had regaled friends with witty stories was sometimes unable to recall a visitor’s name or face.
Howe suffered a stroke in the mid-1970s, was hospitalized many times, and lived in the Crystal Care Center for most of her last 10 years. Her funeral was at St. Paul’s American Lutheran Church, about a mile from the two-story frame house that had been her home for decades.
Supported Local Church
Howe had felt a special bond with the church. St. Paul’s was built in 1891, a year after she was born Emma Sander in Barron, Wis. As a child, had seen her family home destroyed by fire, and the church in this working-class community also had seen hard times.
St. Paul’s was old and needed repairs. And Howe, who was a close friend of Pastor John Quello, donated thousands of dollars to help out.
Quello, now a stockbroker in Sioux Falls, S.D., attended Howe’s funeral and fulfilled a promise made to her. He sang her favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art.”
It was his tribute to a friend. Unknown to many who gathered that day, Howe had made plans for her own tribute to Minnesota.
The twice-widowed woman had willed more than 60% of her estate to charity. Relatives shared most of the rest.
It was the act of a woman who, despite her riches, never acknowledged her wealth, hadn’t even had a checking account until late in life.
Disliked Mention of Wealth
“If you told her she was a millionaire, she’d laugh,” said Richard Hanson, a retired banker and president of the Howe foundation. “You didn’t make any points by telling her.”
In fact, she would get ruffled at the mere suggestion. Once, friends say, her butcher greeted her by saying, “Here comes the rich lady,” and it was the last time she set foot in his shop.
Her wealth was something of a family affair. She is believed to have been one of the first three Deluxe employees, and the others were her sisters. The man who founded the company eventually became a brother-in-law.
Emma was a proofreader. Some speculate that the Sander sisters often were paid in stock.
Today, Deluxe, begun in a St. Paul bank building, has 12,669 employees and 62 plants.
Emma Howe was the largest individual shareholder, and her wealth continued to grow after her death. In the last 18 months, Deluxe stock has split twice. The shares set aside for the foundation are worth about $31 million, according to fund officials.
Howe would never part with them. “The stock was like the family farm,” said Hanson, who served as her adviser. “You don’t sell the farm.”
Her conservative style overlapped into her personal life. Although she was fastidious about her appearance and always had her hair done, even at the nursing home, friends say she owned only half a dozen dresses. She did, however, have a mink coat.
Her pleasures were simple: a day at the races, dancing, rides in the country, tinkering with her upright piano, singing with Quello and visiting with his two children. That was another contradiction: She adored children but never had children of her own.
Howe was independent even in her youth, said Diane Neimann, a consultant to the Minneapolis Foundation who researched her life.
“She took charge of her own life,” Neimann said. “While most women in that era looked for marriage and someone to take care of them, that wasn’t her way at all.”
After her second husband, Al Howe, died in the late 1950s, one of Emma’s favorite ways of entertaining was taking friends to lunch.
A frequent companion in her later years, Agnes Rieck, said that she had a “delightful sense of humor. One time in a restaurant, the waitress was so slow she said, ‘Why don’t we tell her we’ll come back tomorrow for the sandwich?’ ”
Known for $1 Tips
At the end of a meal, Emma would leave a $1 tip. Her guests often would lag behind and discreetly add more money.
Friends point out, however, that Howe did contribute to needy causes. Quello said she never refused a request for the church, and she often donated $500 or $1,000.
“In her terms, she was being generous,” Hanson said. “Five hundred dollars is a lot of money, particularly for people who are older. People didn’t see money like that 40 or 50 years ago.”
Quello says that Howe would be proud that her foundation has helped people, but embarrassed by the publicity.
“She never thought of herself as anyone who should receive much public attention,” he said.
Etzwiler said that there could be no finer memorial.
“What better way can you think of to extend your life?” she said.