SIMSBURY — When an elderly woman showed up at a small law firm several years ago and asked for help managing her estate, an attorney asked her what she thought it was worth.
Kathleen Magowan said she didn't really know. She thought maybe about $40,000.
The real answer? $6 million.
A quiet, unassuming woman who never made headlines during her 87-year life, Magowan taught first grade in Simsbury for 35 years and never brought attention to herself. She was never a much of a philanthropist during her life, but Magowan is now surprising many with huge donations through her estate to her favorite causes — nearly $480,000 to her beloved Simsbury public schools, more than $500,000 to the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, more than $400,000 to the McLean nursing home where she died, and nearly $375,000 to her local parish, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church.
Magowan, who died in 2011 and never married, has left more than $5 million to 15 charities, along with money to seven relatives and neighbors. While she had donated to St. Joseph, her alma mater, every year for the last 40 years of her life, school officials were still surprised by the size of her final gift.
Magowan lived in a comfortable but unspectacular home on busy Route 10 in Simsbury that sold for less than $250,000 — not because it was small but because it had not been renovated in decades. She shared that home in her later years with her twin brother, Robert, who also never married and helped her manage her money. He died one year before her, leaving a gross taxable estate of $3.75 million, according to Simsbury probate records.
The Magowans, the elderly multi-millionaire twins next door, never appeared in the newspaper except very briefly when they died. Their obituaries mentioned the basics about when they were born in New York City but gave no clue about their wealth. With a combined net worth of about $10 million between them, the twins lived quietly along one of the town's busiest streets within walking distance of a bagel shop and a Chinese restaurant.
Robert, who worked as an agent for Prudential Insurance, was the family's financial wizard and the key to his sister's wealth accumulation — he oversaw the stocks and bonds that she largely ignored during her life. Those stocks exploded in value from the 1960s and 1970s to reach spectacular heights by 2013.
"She never really looked at it because she never had a demand for that kind of money,'' said attorney Louis George, whose law firm handled her estate. "It shows the whole buy-and-hold [strategy] instead of these day traders we've seen in the last 10 years. … She lived a fairly frugal lifestyle.''
War Bonds In A Quaker Oats Can
Magowan had so many assets and papers squirreled away that it has taken lawyers two years to untangle the estate and realize that she had $6 million. Only recently have the charities learned about her generosity.
In one of the most stunning discoveries, a neighbor who was helping the attorneys found a Quaker Oats can in a closet that contained the original war bonds from the 1940s and 1950s, largely in small denominations of $50 and $100. The attorneys had no idea what the bonds might be worth, but some research on the Internet showed that the papers in the Quaker Oats can were worth $183,000.
The nearly 100-year-old house on Route 10, known locally as Hopmeadow Street, also contained National Geographic magazines dating back to 1929, old newspapers, dozens of file folders filled with magazines, record albums from the 1920s along with a record player that still worked, an uncashed check for $2,500 and a life insurance policy dating back to 1949. Some items were kept in old-fashioned steamer trunks, while papers were found in the handmade files that Magowan made from old cereal boxes.
"They didn't throw anything away,'' said attorney David Bondanza, who came to know Kathleen Magowan personally and did much of the legal work on the estate. "That's the bottom line. There was a lot of history in that house.''
Bondanza interviewed a series of estate auctioneering firms in an attempt to estimate the contents of the house — after searching through cabinets, drawers, and closets. The contents finally netted about $10,000. Never known for wearing fancy jewelry, Magowan also kept $6,000 in jewels in a safe deposit box.
Little was tossed away over the decades; the four-bedroom house eventually accumulated nine mattresses, even though Magowan was the last one in the house after her brother passed away in June 2010.
Out Of The Blue Contributions
Since the low-key Magowan never made large contributions during her lifetime and never had her name emblazoned on any buildings, the donations from her estate came out of the blue.
Simsbury school board members were stunned to hear that a retired teacher had donated nearly half a million dollars to the schools. The possibility of using the money to make improvements to the track and field facilities has been mentioned, but no final decisions will be made until after the board meets in December.
"When we got wind of it, it was quite a surprise,'' said Lydia Tedone, the board's chairwoman. "It's a great way to honor the legacy of a very special teacher. She believed in the school system. The schools meant something to her.''
The gift is the biggest in at least 33 years in Simsbury, and nothing comes close in Tedone's 17 years on the board.
"This is definitely the largest gift,'' said Tedone, who also serves as the statewide president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "This, by far, is the largest.''
School Superintendent Matthew Curtis said a former colleague remembered Magowan as "a consummate professional.'' In class photos, the 5-foot-4-inch Magowan, modestly dressed, stands proudly with her first-grade students.
During her life, Magowan made regular contributions to charities that never generated widespread attention. The annual report for the McLean home, the Simsbury nursing home where she died, listed Magowan with many others in 2010 under the "Friends of McLean'' who each gave $250. She is not mentioned at all among the home's Top 100 donors.
When she died, however, she left McLean $419,000.
"All of us remember her very much as the schoolteacher who always had a twinkle in her eye,'' said Deene Morris, the fundraising director at McLean. "She always had a sparkle for life. She loved stimulating conversation; ideas and stories. She loved engaging in conversation with all sorts of different people, and everyone loved talking to her. A school teacher. That's how she lived in our hearts.''
At the University of Saint Joseph, the development director who oversees major gifts, Diane Burgess, said she visited Magowan at her Simsbury home before she died. They would share tea and Magowan would reminisce about her days when she commuted to college.
"We had no idea,'' Burgess said, that Magowan's portfolio was so substantial. "She was low-key, sweet, compassionate. You would never know.''
The Magowan family fortune started with the work of Kathleen's father, William, who served as the chief financial officer of Ensign-Bickford, a historic company in Simsbury that is known for making explosives. An accountant, William moved the family to Alaska and Bolivia for various jobs before eventually settling in one of the "Ensign-Bickford houses'' that the firm built along Hopmeadow Street.
Young Kathleen grew up in one of those houses near the Simsbury firehouse and then moved to a second Bickford home that she eventually owned after her parents died.
As the decades went by, Magowan changed virtually nothing from the days when her parents lived in the home. A sister, Patricia, became a medical doctor in the 1940s.
"The clothes in the closet were still there from the parents,'' said George, recalling the discoveries when the lawyers went through the house. "Still in the drawer in 2012 was the minutes of the 1955 Ensign-Bickford board meeting.''
As her father was climbing the corporate ladder, Kathleen was learning in school. She graduated from St. Joseph's College in West Hartford with a degree in the first nursing class in 1947. After working for several years in the pediatric unit at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, she decided to switch careers and teach in elementary school. She eventually received a master's degree in education in 1953 from Hillyer College, which is now the University of Hartford. That led to a long career in the Simsbury public schools before she retired in 1984.
Living a frugal lifestyle, Magowan had relatively few expenses. With no children or grandchildren, she had no day care expenses or college tuition. She had no mortgage after inheriting the family home from her parents.
With no children or siblings to receive her money, Magowan turned to her favorite charities. She also had two nephews in California and a niece in North Carolina.
Over the years, her wealth grew steadily, with some of the biggest stock gains from an obscure company known as Ametek Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company that manufactures electrical motors, pumps, and instruments. The company had caught the attention of Robert Magowan, who had lived in Manchester before moving back into the family home with his sister.
"Nobody goes out and buys Ametek stock without researching it,'' Bondanza said.
Barry Horowitz, an attorney for Robert Magowan, said that Robert lived modestly in the same way as other "millionaires next door'' that he has seen during his 27 years of estate planning.
"You never know what anybody has in the way of assets,'' Horowitz said. "I deal with this all the time all day long. There is very little correlation between how someone lives and how much they have. Everybody is different. I just saw someone recently who has an estate of $20 million, and they live extremely modestly. How someone lives is not necessarily a reflection of what they have.''
Under the Radar
For a lifetime, the Magowan twins flew almost completely under the radar in Simsbury. John K. Hampton, a state legislator and former deputy first selectman who has lived in the town his entire life, said he had never heard of Kathleen Magowan.
"I do not know that person at all,'' said Hampton, adding that longtime First Selectman Mary Glassman also was in the dark.
Now, however, Kathleen Magowan's generosity has made her an unforgettable figure in the town where she spent most of her life.
At the Simsbury school board, Tedone remembers when she first heard about the donation as the word was starting to spread.
"It put a smile on our faces,'' Tedone said. "We looked out the window and looked up to her in heaven, saying, 'Thank you.' She is probably smiling down on us.''