Like most college students, Cara Wood doesn't live extravagantly. She rents an apartment off campus at Ohio University and drives a used Jeep.
But the living is easy, and she's enjoying her time in this college town.
"Life is about having fun and being happy," the 22-year-old said. "I'm happy."
Things are going well for the former waitress, who made headlines five years ago while still in high school when she inherited a $500,000 estate from a customer who had befriended her. She has invested in the stock market and is making enough money to live off the earnings, which also are paying for her college education. She said she has all of the principal she inherited--and more.
In 1992, Wood was 17 and working at Dink's Colonial Restaurant in her hometown of Chagrin Falls, about 15 miles east of Cleveland. She was a good employee--bright, friendly and helpful.
One customer, Bill Cruxton, took such a liking to her that he always sat in her section. A widower with no children, he went to the restaurant daily for his meals and some company.
Cruxton's intention to be benevolent in his death was no secret at the restaurant. He previously had willed his estate to another waitress but took her out of it for reasons not fully explained. Some say Cruxton didn't like her boyfriend; others say the two simply lost touch when she left her job.
Then there was Wood, a high school soccer star who worked after school and during the summer. She was competitive, outgoing and assertive. He was opinionated and at times overbearing. Sometimes, the two personalities clashed.
But they became friends. He told her she reminded him of his wife, Gertrude, who had died three years earlier. He said he imagined his grandchildren, if he'd had any, would have been like Wood.
In addition to being his regular waitress, she helped him around the house and ran errands for him.
Yes, she knew about the small fortune waiting to be inherited. But she said that didn't matter to her. He cared for her--he knew that her father, Charles, had died when she was 10. And she cared for him--as a friend.
Wood became so important to Cruxton that he rewrote his will, making her the main beneficiary.
It would not be rewritten again. Cruxton, 82, died of heart failure in November 1992. He kept a picture of Wood in her soccer uniform on a bedside table in his hospital room.
Cruxton's will was challenged by several people, including a sister--his only surviving family member--and the previous waitress. A settlement was reached in September 1993; Wood got Cruxton's house, both of his cars, his jewelry, other assorted valuables and all of his money except about $35,000, an amount the others shared. Wood had to pay upward of $100,000 in legal fees.
Wood's mother, Glenna Snider, said the inheritance was a blessing bestowed upon her daughter somewhat by chance. As she sees it, her daughter just happened to be the waitress Cruxton liked at the time. Cruxton, Snider said, was a bit fickle.
Wood understands she has much to be thankful for.
"I am lucky," she said. "I'm coming to realize that."
Snider urged her daughter to use the inheritance wisely. "I said don't ever spend what Bill gave you; just spend what it can make for you."
Wood turned to the stock market. She said she has done well primarily because the market has been so strong.
But she has business sense, which she is sharpening in college by majoring in marketing and finance. Now a senior, she has a 3.5 grade-point average.
She already is a licensed broker and insurance agent--an impressive accomplishment for anyone still in school, said Glenn Corlett, dean of the College of Business.
"The first time I met her, I thought she was a working professional," Corlett said. "I was flabbergasted to learn that she's a student."
Wood is getting experience by working at Margaret Topping Financial Services Inc., a local investment, insurance and brokerage services company, during school breaks.
She plans to continue working there after graduation, with Topping's endorsement.
"She's very good with people, she's very ethical, and she's very quick at picking up things," Topping said. "Cara is first-class."
In addition to her market investments, Wood still owns Cruxton's two-bedroom ranch in Moreland Hills, a few miles from Chagrin Falls.
She said she wouldn't feel right selling it, so she rents it. She doesn't think of this property as a business endeavor. "I pretty much break even at the end of the year."
Wood believes she has been responsible with her inheritance. She's not frivolous. She prefers her red 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which she bought last December, to a new car.
"I'll never buy a new car," she said. "Do you know that's the worst investment you can make?"
She sees being careful with her money as honoring Cruxton. "I want to respect his memory. It's not really my money; it's his money."
Wood has no long-range plans, other than to continue her career in financial planning. She isn't sure when she will graduate, and she isn't hurrying.
She doesn't go home to Chagrin Falls very often, but when she does, she stops in at Dink's. Co-owner Dennis Zdolshek said customers still talk about what happened to one of their waitresses five years ago.
"They ask about Cara," Zdolshek said. "Sometimes someone will make a joke and say something like "I'm old. You'd better be nice to me.' "