June 9, 2010 -- There are two things about 98-year-old Verna Oller that just about anyone around her neigborhood in Long Beach, Washington can tell you. She was feisty, and she was frugal.
She was so frugal that she never went to a hairdresser. After all, she could cut her own hair for free.
She refused to buy new shoelaces and improvised by looping the zipper from an old coat through her boots.
When her longtime friends, Guy and Carolyn Glenn, bought her a new coat on sale, she sent it right back. She found a cheaper one for just $2.
"There was no reason to go buy new clothes if there were good ones at the thrift store," Carolyn Glenn said. "So that's where she bought a lot of her clothes."
Keeping A Secret
Oller never made much money, earning an hourly wage filleting fish until she was in her 70s.
She cut her own firewood until she was in her 90s.
But Oller was carrying a secret, a big one, and she entrusted the Glenns to keep it. It turned out she was a master investor.
She called Glenn "the paperboy" because he would give her his already read copy of the paper. She never wanted to spend money on it herself. Oller was so savvy, she gave the Glenns' son stock investing tips, telling him about how she made a 50-percent return on AT&T when it was at a low point.
The sturdy old lady with no formal education amassed a not-so-small fortune: $4.5 million. It was up over $5 million before the recession.
Before she died, she directed Guy Glenn to spend every cent of it, but not on her, on her home town.
"She wants a swimming pool to be built, that was her main goal," he said.
Mission accomplished. Part of Oller's money will go to building the town's very first indoor swimming pool. The pool was important to Oller because as a poor little girl growing up there it frustrated her that kids often had no place to swim even though they lived on the ocean. But the shoreline can be dangerous in the Pacific Northwestern town. Money will also be set aside for scholarships and grants for local teachers.
"I think we could learn a lot from her," said Andrea Nooman, a nursing home owner.
When Oller died, she didn't want a funeral or even an obit. In fact, she didn't want any credit at all.
Verna Oller, the generous and secret self-made millionaire, passed away May 10.