As an 18-year-old in the mid-1920s, Jennie Bezich went to work as the first employee of a fledgling marine insurance company in a town that had been built on the fishing industry.
A top athlete at San Pedro High School, she was not particularly business-minded when she arrived at the Van Camp Insurance Co. But the president knew about the stock market, and his savvy rubbed off on the firm's new secretary.
Bezich began putting what she could into stock. Her investments were blue chip, and she held onto them. She also rose with the insurance company during a 50-year career, becoming secretary-treasurer, vice president and eventually a part owner.
In the process, Bezich--a private woman who never married and was 82 when she died of cancer in October, 1989--became very wealthy. But it was not the kind of wealth that showed.
She dressed nicely but not extravagantly, and lived modestly for many years with an unmarried sister, Mary, in a San Pedro apartment. She wasn't a traveler and drove the same car--albeit a Lincoln Continental--for 20 years. The car had only 42,000 miles on the odometer when she died.
Bezich was so low-key about her money, in fact, that even some friends and relatives were surprised at how much she had amassed when one of her bequests became public in October.
The San Pedro Peninsula Hospital Foundation announced last month that Bezich had left the hospital a $1.2-million endowment. While Bezich had decided years earlier to leave money to the hospital--Mary had been sickly, and Bezich was impressed with the care her sister had received at the hospital--the amount was "a very pleasant surprise," said Mary L. Gimenez, executive director of the foundation.
Bezich also left an endowment to the San Pedro Peninsula YMCA, where she was a board member for 20 years, and an unrestricted bequest to another institution that was not disclosed by her estate.
While the estate did not publicize the amounts, Ken Bezich, a retired San Pedro fisherman who was Jennie Bezich's cousin and closest relative, said she left more than $2 million to the Y, which was her pet charity.
"She was sort of a humble person," Ken Bezich said. "She didn't make any pretenses of her position. . . . Anyone who knew her would never think" that she had money. Ken Bezich received the 1969 Lincoln, the only bequest Jennie Bezich made to relatives, family members said.
Of her fortune, Ted C. Springfield, a onetime Van Camp insurance president who worked with Bezich for nearly 30 years, said, "She never did spend much, but I didn't expect it to be that high."
People who knew Bezich over the years say she had three great interests in life, rooted in her association with San Pedro and the Van Camp family: the insurance business, her investments and San Pedro charities. She was particularly fond of the Y, and after her retirement she often visited there to chat with the staff over coffee.
She became a West Coast insurance expert and an executive in a male-dominated field. "She was a terrific insurance lady and a stickler for details," Springfield recalled.
Bezich could be tough in business, and her height--5 feet, 10 inches--helped, according to her sister-in-law, M. B. Bezich of San Pedro. "She said she was a success in business because she was so tall she could look a man in the eye, point a cigarette at him and say, 'You'd better do that.' "
John Swift, executive director of the Y and a friend who helped care for Bezich during her illness, said her politics were staunchly Republican. And while "women's libber" was never a label she wore, Swift said, "she bought Susan B. Anthony dollars and gave them away to kids," always telling the youngsters that Anthony was a leader in the fight to get women the vote.
Swift also recalled Bezich's comment on why she remained single: "Well, I guess I never married because the fellow I wanted to live with in perpetuity never came along."
Bezich was an avid reader who followed current events and the financial world the way many people follow soap operas. Recalled Ken Bezich: "She was a hard worker and dedicated investor. She got all the financial sections of the paper and had three or four papers in front of her all the time."
Bezich is remembered by another cousin, Kenneth M. Bezich, as "very intelligent, very businesslike, a nice lady who was very cordial. When I was going to school, she was always interested in how I was doing, that I was continuing my education."
But there was another side to Bezich, who was variously called demanding, exacting, even bossy. "Some described her as tough to work for," Swift said. "She had extremely high expectations of performance. But she never asked anyone to do anything she wouldn't do herself."
If there were spelling mistakes on Y board minutes, Swift said, she would call about them. She also didn't hesitate to telephone presidents of companies in which she held stock if she had complaints.
Bezich also kept notes of things she had asked people to do, and if they didn't do them, she'd call with a reminder. "Memory is fine, but notes are better" was a favorite Bezich remark, Swift said.
In a 1977 interview after her retirement, Bezich recalled advice from her father: "He told me just because someone else might not be working hard was no reason for me to follow suit. Do the best you can; never mind what others are doing." About her own career, she said, "I just went about and did the best I could at whatever I had to do."
Swift said he used to ask Bezich if she didn't want to spend some of her money on herself. She answered no, he said, explaining that her pleasure came from controlling her investments. "She got great joy out of reading the daily stock market report to see what she had gained or lost," he said.
As a result, San Pedro is the beneficiary of Bezich's financial success.
"She directed the Y endowment committee for years," Swift said. "The strongest case she made was that people should put money into endowments. The principal would never be touched. She was adamant about this."
Added Swift: "A lot of people do this before they die, for recognition. She didn't. She was a quiet one."