Elderly Couple's Generosity Shocks Town

When the Hatches suddenly died, their friends learned how much they valued them.

Oct. 12, 2008— -- Arlene and Willis Hatch lived simple lives on a farm near the tiny town of Alto, Mich. Willis, known to friends as "Ish," farmed beef cattle and Arlene taught seventh grade.

They never had children of their own but saw their neighbors as family members, and after the Hatches were killed in an auto accident, their neighbors discovered how deep that feeling went.

"You could not name how many kids are a part of their family, even though they're not blood related," remembers Sandra VanWeelden, a neighbor. "Once you met them, if they liked you, you were family. That was it."

Sandra VanWeelden taught with Arlene 40 years ago. She quickly felt like a daughter, as did Norma Peterson.

"We're in a small farming community and everyone looks out for each other," Peterson says.

The couple, both in their 90s, rarely bought anything new. Their past taught them to be penny-wise.

"She [Arlene] said, 'We both went through the depression. We don't see a need. We're comfortable with what we have,'" Sandra VanWeelden recalls.

Instead of buying material items, the Hatches invested in friendship, their neighbors say. Steve Vanderziel says he spent hours on the Hatches' porch talking about everything.

"They went through their life very simple. And they didn't need to spend money on fancy things," Vanderziel recalls.

Arlene and Ish's status in the community made a series of events that began nearly a year ago unfathomable.

While driving one day in November, Ish apparently unintentionally pulled his vehicle into the path of another car. Arlene was killed instantly. The driver in the other car survived with minor injuries. Ish suffered minor injuries as well but died three days later. Some friends say he died of a broken heart.

"He just couldn't think about not being with her. They were always together," close friend Mabel Seigel says.

Their sudden death left friends and neighbors heartbroken.

Then a few weeks later, the letters started arriving. More than 70 neighbors got notice they had inherited money from Arlene and Ish -- and that the couple had accumulated a small fortune.

The couple, who lived so frugally, had accumulated nearly $3 million and left most of it to their neighbors.

"Aunt Arlene and Uncle Ish wanted you to have an expression of how much your friendship and kindness over the years meant to them," VanWeelden read from the letter she received.

The dozens of neighbors sharing the Hatches' wealth shared their time and their kindness with the couple. Many are adults who looked in on the couple and children who stopped by to chat. Some received more than a hundred thousand dollars, others only a few thousand.

In times when so many are struggling or have lost jobs, the gift means even more.

"This was their way to give everyone in the neighborhood a leg up in life," says Vanderziel, who bought the Hatches' farm.

The generous gift also means college money for his children, but even though he is appreciative, Vanderziel says he misses his friends.

"I would trade every last bit of what we got for one last conversation on the porch," he says.

Arlene and Ish Hatch left an indelible legacy for their neighbors. With kindness and caring, one elderly couple taught younger generations about investing in what matters most — each other.