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.''