Secret Millionaires Surprise Friends, Charities With Gifts

Sometimes the people you would least expect are the wealthiest.

February 14, 2011, 2:04 PM

Feb. 16, 2011 — -- Helen Dyrdal, 91, led a private, simple life as a widow in a suburb 13 miles outside of Seattle. Her ragged clothing and sparing lifestyle led people to believe she was poor when she passed away last March. Grace Groner also lived a simple lifestyle in her one-bedroom home in Lake Forest, Ill., before she passed away one year ago. But to the surprise of many, both women were actually millionaires.

"I thought she was poverty stricken," said Goldie Ericson, friend of Dyrdal. Ericson, 81, said Dyrdal moved next door about five years ago, when both their husbands were in poor health. After their husbands passed away, the two continued to live in their homes in the retirement community.

After Dyrdal passed away, she left Ericson in charge to manage her estate. After opening her mail, Ericson eventually learned through her financial statements that Dyrdal had about $3 million. Ericson said she believes Dyrdal inherited most of her wealth from her mother, but she has no idea of her friend's history.

"I know very little about her personal life," said Ericson. "She was extremely private."

Ericson said she just knew that Dyrdal was extremely prudent with her money, wearing old clothing and living with dilapidated furniture.

"The way she lived was so frugal and thrifty. She was so careful with every penny or so," Ericson said. "She was tidy and everything. But everything was well used."

Grace Groner lived alone in her small home in an affluent neighborhood of Chicago before she passed away last year at the age of 100. She had donated $180,000 to a scholarship fund to Lake Forest College, her alma mater, years before her death. But administrators from the college were surprised when they learned that Groner bequeathed another $7 million after her death, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Ericson said she was puzzled why the media was interested in the topic of her penny-pinching, yet generous, elderly friend. Other stories of generosity have made headlines, with unsolicited donations both big and small.

Matel Dawson Jr. was the Ford Motor Co. forklift operator who donated $1.3 million to schools and nonprofit groups by the time he passed away at age 81 in Detroit. And Oseola McCarty was the humble laundry woman who saved enough to donate $150,000 to the University of Mississippi in 1995 before she passed away at age 91 in 1999.

Dyrdal also left all her money to charity in her will. Among the recipients are the Providence Hospice of Seattle and the Salvation Army in Renton, which each received $500,000.

Captain Terry Masango of the Salvation Army said Dyrdal had no known connection to the organization besides living near its building. He had just met with an architect to discuss building expansions to accommodate their growing programs for children and the needy, who gave him a $500,000 minimum estimate.

After learning about the gift while driving with his cell phone, Masango said he pulled to the side of the road, speechless. He said the gift was a timely "miracle."

"Maybe she was watching us – children's' programs and picking up seniors - from her window and she felt we deserved part of the donation," said Masango, who said the program is still fundraising for the building. "We were quite amazed."

Ericson said Dyrdal was so private she would not like the media attention on her gifts now though she did want to have a large impact with her money.

"In one of the last conversations we had, she said she wanted as many people as possible to benefit from the money she had and she wanted people to understand that she was a good person at heart," Ericson said.

Michelle Goodman, a Money columnist with ABC News, said stories of generosity like Drydal's are surprising to many people, in part because of the depiction of ostentatious wealth in the media.

"We're so used to seeing wealthy celebrities on all the news sites," Goodman said.

Goodman also said that in difficult economic times, privacy regarding your wealth is especially attractive.

"Because not everyone is fortunate and there are so many scams out there, it's not a bad idea to be private with that sort of thing," Goodman said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events