Man with soft spot leaves $3.3 million to skid row charities

One beneficiary of Delmer Clarence Kallberg's skid-row bequest is Inner-City Arts, which tries to fill the gap left by the arts education cutbacks at L.A. Unified.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

In the next several weeks, money will begin falling out of the sky and onto skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Manna from heaven, as they say.

More than $3 million worth.

The cash will come courtesy of a reclusive, cantankerous soul with a generous heart, and here is the story:

Delmer Clarence Kallberg came into the world in the year 1914 in Minnesota, the son of Swedish immigrants. After his father’s death, he and his three siblings suffered along with their mother through the Great Depression, and Kallberg carried away a lifelong soft spot for anyone who struggled through hard times.


Kallberg had another defining experience. He was serving aboard the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga in January 1945 when two kamikaze pilots scored direct hits on the ship, setting off explosions that killed 144 sailors and injured 200 more. Kallberg survived but would be hearing impaired for the rest of his life.

He settled in Los Angeles after the war and bought a little two-bedroom house on National Boulevard in Mar Vista in 1960. He married a woman who had a son Kallberg adopted, a boy named Jeffrey. And he worked for the Veterans Administration as an attorney, representing veterans who needed legal assistance.

But this was no Ozzie & Harriet situation. The marriage fell apart, and Jeffrey, who’d always had trouble connecting with his emotionally unreachable and obsessively frugal father, became estranged from him for many years and settled in Philadelphia.

“He was a complicated man and stubborn as all get out,” said Jeffrey, a music professor and associate dean for Arts & Letters at the University of Pennsylvania. “He had fights with most everybody he knew, including family and me, and for a long time we were out of touch. I made various efforts to repair things and they were rebuffed.”

But he gave it one more try a few years ago, after Delmer Kallberg — in his mid-90s — took a fall and, after landing in the hospital, went home to convalesce.

“The place was a decaying time capsule from the 1970s,” said Jeffrey, who found the same furniture, carpet and wallpaper that were there when he was growing up. If his father had another relationship after the divorce in 1975, Jeffrey was unaware of it.


During that encounter and subsequent visits, the father and son began to narrow the divide between them. And it may be that the father had longed for the opportunity; a supervisor at Delmer Kallberg’s bank told me he had quietly kept clippings of his son’s accomplishments in music and academia over the years of their estrangement, and was proud to show them off.

As they got to know each other better, Jeffrey began to see a man whose reserve and frugality were products of the Depression, as was his solidarity with the destitute and those who stood up to power or authority. Jeffrey also saw the remnants of the war his father had survived. He was almost deaf but still refused to use hearing aids, perhaps preferring the cold comfort of isolation.

“He was still the same person, but he was looking to talk about positive things,” Jeffrey said. “He asked about my family and my son. I showed him pictures and he was really taken with that.... I couldn’t have been happier that we had a chance to connect.”

When Delmer died about a year and a half ago at 98, it was left to Jeffrey to deal with the estate. He began going through his father’s papers, and was astonished by the small fortune his father had amassed while living the life of a pauper. His wealth — several million dollars worth — wasn’t from his career, but mostly from investments. He was inclined to buy and hold blue-chip stocks for decades, and then there was the equity from the house he’d lived in for half his life.

So to whom did he leave it all?

“He was very good to me,” said Jeffrey Kallberg, whose father also left $500,000 for the West Los Angeles VA, but seemed confused at the end as to exactly how much money he had.

Note the last paragraph of his will:

“If there are any funds remaining they shall be distributed to the various charitable organizations on the so called skidrow.”

There were, indeed, funds remaining — $3.3 million.

“He typed his will himself on a typewriter,” attorney Ted Wolfberg said, “and he was definitely old-school. I could tell the ribbon was kind of worn out.”

With no specific charities listed by Kallberg, Wolfberg did some research and came up with about 30 organizations doing charitable work on skid row. All of them have now been notified that they will soon receive a little more than $100,000 apiece.

“I mean, thank God for people like this,” said Bob Smiland of Inner-City Arts, which tries to fill the gap left by the arts education cutbacks at L.A. Unified. “A hundred thousand dollars makes a huge difference for us.”

“We think it’s remarkable,” said Molly Moen of the Downtown Women’s Center, another recipient. She said the grant could help fund a program to aid abused women with mental health issues.

“We didn’t know his name,” Moen said of Kallberg, “but he will have this lasting legacy of caring about and impacting so many people.”

Ernest Rabotte, who runs Dream Machine Boxing Ring, a boxing fitness and mentoring program for at-risk youth, said he couldn’t believe the news. He just lost his gym because the building was sold.

“This will help get us on our feet,” said Rabotte, who added that the largest donation he’d ever gotten before was $150.

When some recipients asked to know more about the life of the donor they never met, Jeffrey Kallberg wrote a brief bio of his father. It ended with this:

“My father was not a man who made friends easily. But he felt strongly that one of the purposes of his life was to fight for the ‘little guy’ (as he termed the most indigent of his clients), and it was in this realm that he most easily allowed his humanity to show through.”