Oregon Millionaire Lives On Through Gifts to His Hometown
Leo Adler was just 9 years old when he began selling magazines on the dusty streets of this Wild West town at the turn of the century.
In an advertisement from the early 1900s touting him as a top seller of the Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, the fresh-faced, neatly knickered boy stares out with a bag over his shoulder and his dog Prince at his feet.
From those simple beginnings, Adler built a business that distributed magazines across the Northwest, and he became known as a hard-drinking, somewhat eccentric character who loved baseball and liked to hang around the firehouse.
When he died five years ago at the age of 98, Adler left nearly everything he had--all $20 million of it--to the only family he ever really had, his hometown.
Today there is a new firehouse, the Leo Adler firehouse. There’s the Leo Adler ballpark, and soon there will be the Leo Adler parkway. Of course, there’s also the Leo Adler scholarships, which give just about anyone who graduates from high school here a chance to go on to college.
And now that the portfolio of cash and stock has grown to $32 million, it’s clear that the legacy of Leo Adler will be felt here for years to come.
Trustees and planners are busy mapping a long-term strategy on how best to use the windfall, hoping the money will help transform this sleepy ranching and farming town of 10,000 in eastern Oregon’s high desert into the “premier rural living experience.”
“A lot of people knew about Leo Adler, they knew him when they saw him, but not many people really knew him,” said Robert Young, the retired fire chief and a friend of Adler’s for 50 years. “He was generous with everyone but Leo Adler.”
He lived for 94 years in the same house and never bothered to put electricity upstairs. Parked in his parlor, for some unknown reason, was nearly every lawnmower he ever owned, along with most of the worn-out brooms.
When he was out on the town and had a few too many drinks, something not unheard of, the fire department sometimes would send the ambulance to take him home.
“Leo was a walking advertisement for Old Grand Dad whiskey, and the bars in town kept it in on hand for him,” Young recalled.
Adler’s first civic gift was a pumper truck for the fire department in 1939. He gave lavishly to hospitals, the YMCA, park projects, and to churches of all kinds.
But just like Adler himself, his philanthropy always gravitated to the fire department.
Every few years, he would write out a check for $25,000 to $40,000 for a new ambulance, and out of the blue he would call the firehouse and tell them to order up some T-bone steak dinners from the hotel and bill it to him.
The call might come when Adler was at a World Series--he seldom missed one and attended more than 20 straight--or at a party somewhere across the country.
Adler knew Flo Ziegfeld. He had friends in the halls of Congress, in Hollywood and just about everywhere else.
“Once we got a call from Palm Springs,” Young recalled. “It was Leo. He told us to order steaks, of course, then he got Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and a fiddle player over to the phone. They sang over the phone to the fire department.”
At a state fire chiefs’ convention, Adler ordered up his own kind of snow cones--a tub of shaved ice and seemingly endless whiskey.
“I looked at Leo and he had a grin on his face. I told him, ‘Leo, this is costing you some money; you better close this down,’ but he said, ‘Bob, if it’s good for Baker City and good for the fire department, I don’t care what it costs.’ ”
Adler set up his first office in the corner of his father’s jewelry and music store. His father advised him to stay in Baker City and get ahead while others went off to college.
But now his legacy is making sure that chance doesn’t pass others by.
Any high school graduate in Baker County is eligible for a scholarship. That’s not just the 200 or so who get a diploma every spring, but also those who graduated years ago and have since decided to go to college or vocational school.
Consideration goes to grades, need, character and other attributes, in no special order.
There were 433 applicants last year. Of those, 417 got at least some help to study at 96 institutions in 22 states, plus London and Amsterdam. Adler scholars are at such places as Stanford University and William and Mary, as well as schools for mechanics and hairdressers.
Ken and Mona Helgerson have three children studying at three different Oregon schools with help from Adler.
“In our family, with three, it has really helped a lot,” said Mona Helgerson, a teacher’s assistant at Baker Middle School. “We would not have been able to come up with those funds otherwise.”
Since distribution began in 1995 the trusts have paid out more than $4.3 million. Once a year, a panel of trustees meet and decide what will be funded.
“Leo Adler’s legacy is that lofty goals are attainable,” said Brian Cole of the state’s regional development office, who helped develop a long-range concept for use of the Adler funds.
“We realized that funding small projects wouldn’t get us anywhere, that they were different pieces of a larger puzzle,” he said. “The funds are a means to an end. We are using it to fund strategies, not just projects.”
Adler left few instructions except that the money go for worthy causes, with the type of things he gave to in his lifetime getting priority.
That includes St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which regularly received $60,000 to $100,000 a year from Adler.
“He wanted the hospital to be able to attract good doctors to Baker City,” said Gene Rose, Adler’s lawyer and one of three trustees.
Projects being funded include a parkway along the Powder River, a sports complex, a golf course expansion, expansion of a technical training center, city hall renovation and fairgrounds projects.
Adler’s 108-year-old home is being renovated into a museum with the help of some foundation grants and a lot of volunteer labor.
“I think a lot of people want to help just because it was Leo’s house,” said Cheri Meyer, who is coordinating the project.
And each year, along about Christmas, Baker City’s firemen assemble for a steak dinner.
Leo Adler’s will provides for it in perpetuity.