She never had children of her own, but Agnes Plumb still liked to help kids out.
Even though she didn’t have a job, she would still sit down at the kitchen table of her modest ranch-style home in Studio City and write a $250 check here or a $500 check there for local children’s charities.
So administrators at the Crippled Children’s Society and Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles weren’t surprised to learn that the 88-year-old woman, who died a year ago, had remembered them in her will. What stunned them was the amount of Agnes Plumb’s estate: $98 million.
Officials disclosed Wednesday that Plumb, who over her lifetime amassed a fortune from her holdings in a cereal company’s stock, donated her wealth to those two organizations, as well as the UCLA School of Medicine and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Each organization receives $22.5 million. That is the largest single gift ever for Orthopaedic Hospital and the Crippled Children’s Society and the second-largest for the UCLA medical school.
Plumb asked in her will that Orthopaedic Hospital use the money for “medical expenses and procedures for needy children.” She specified that the Crippled Children’s Society use its share for “needy children with birth defects.” UCLA and St. Jude were asked to spend their shares on medical research and--in the case of the Westwood hospital--to help poor people pay for organ transplants.
“We’re awe-struck,” said Marilyn Graves, president of the 70-year-old Crippled Children’s Society.
“Significant” and “gratifying” is the way UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young described the gift.
“This is just unbelievable. This just came out of the blue,” said Eloise L. Helwig, president of the Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation. “I don’t think anybody had a clue she had this money.”
Until her death on Oct. 21, 1995, from heart disease, few knew that Plumb was wealthy.
She lived modestly for 59 years in the tidy white house on Chiquita Street. Never married, she steadfastly looked after her disabled mother until her death in 1960. She told friends that her mother had been left permanently crippled when she was thrown down a stairway during a coal company labor dispute in Pennsylvania.
Plumb’s hobby was collecting dolls. More than 2,000 of them lined shelves in the house, with one wood-hewn figure dating to 1670. She enjoyed inviting local Girl Scouts and Brownies in to look at the collection, described as “museum-worthy” in a 1961 newspaper account.
The photo accompanying that story is the only known picture of Plumb as an adult. Although she kept a photo of herself as a baby, friends say she even tore up her driver’s license picture.
During her last 10 years Plumb had mostly stayed inside, suffering from a hip injury and from the phlebitis that kept her from driving. She was embarrassed by her badly swollen legs and rarely invited people to her house. Instead, she communicated by mail, even with friends and neighbors.
The few times she ventured out to eat, she preferred DuPar’s and Denny’s to fancy restaurants.
“One time I wanted to get her a special breakfast and she said, ‘Nah, let’s just go to McDonald’s,’ ” said Lee Hill, Plumb’s former hairdresser. The Arleta resident did Plumb’s grocery shopping for years and was willed her home.
Hill remembers noticing that Kellogg’s cereal was always on the grocery list. She discovered why after her husband, John Lee, was asked by Plumb to check over the addition on a bank deposit she was making.
“I added up the figures and it came to $437,000,” said Lee, a retired truck driver. “I thought she’d made a mistake and it was supposed to be $4,700. It turned out it was one of her quarterly stock figures.”
In fact, Plumb owned 1.3 million shares of Kellogg’s stock.
“Her father had gotten it and it just kept splitting, resplitting and doubling,” said Paul Armond of West Covina, Plumb’s tax accountant for 38 years and the executor of her estate.
“She never looked at the stock as wealth. She just looked at it as paper,” Armond said.
Plumb’s frequent charitable donations got her on plenty of solicitation lists, Armond added. So in the end she picked her beneficiaries carefully. Along with the four groups sharing $90 million, four couples who were longtime friends each received $2 million, he said. “I knew her since 1935 and I was as startled as anyone to find out she had millions after she died,” said Clara Hewitt, a Studio City neighbor. “She was very quiet, very modest. We’d talk about politics and things. I was surprised she was as liberal as she was.”
Although St. Jude officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, local beneficiaries of Plumb’s millions said her name will live on with their organizations through perpetual endowments the money will help finance.
Her friends say Agnes Plumb would probably be embarrassed by that.