Monday, May 7, 2018

the value of being poor

This morning’s edition of the New York Times had an inspiring story about a woman named Sylvia Bloom, a Brooklyn native who died in 2016, not long after retiring from her job as a legal secretary at the age of 96. She had worked there for 67 years.

Born in 1903 to eastern European immigrants, she attended public schools in Brooklyn, and later completed a degree at Hunter College at night, while working full time during the day.

In 1947, she joined a newly formed law firm named Cleay, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton. At the time of her death, the firm had more than 1200 lawyers, and hundreds of staff members.

Although her salary as a legal secretary was “adequate” it was not sufficient to support a lavish life style. When she started with the firm, it was common for legal secretaries to get involved in the personal finances of her bosses. Whenever her bosses made investments, she often bought the same stocks, but in smaller amounts.

Although married, she and her husband never had children of their own, and they always lived a modest lifestyle, living in a rent controlled apartment. They almost always took public transportation.

Her soft spot was the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, a school for disadvantaged student, which recently became a HUGE beneficiary of her thrift and financial acumen.

Over the course of the career with the law firm, Ms. Bloom’s investments did well. She spread the investments to three brokerage firms and 11 banks. At the time of her death, she had accrued a fortune of more than $9 million.

Last week, the terms of her will were made public, and the Henry Street Settlement learned that she had endowed them with $6.2 million towards their scholarship fund.

If you have read “The Millionaire Next Door”, you know that there are a LOT of wealthy people living in our midst, but you would never known that by their lifestyles. The Times article also mentions Leonard Gigowski, Grace Groner (who I have written about before) and Donald and Mildred Othmer, all of whom lived modestly , but managed to amass large fortunes.ttp:

One thing that all of these people had in common is that they grew up during the Great Depression, and I have actually benefited personally from people that are similar to them.

My dad was born in 1909 (the golden age of farming) and my mother was born in 1913. Dad’s mother died when he was 11, leaving his dad alone to raise 7 children. In the summer of 1929, 56 year old Mark Brennan died of a heart attack, so my 20 year old dad and his 18 year old brother became heads of the household. Meanwhile, my mother’s parent’s saved up a modest down payment that allowed them to purchase a house in Hastings, Minnesota in the fall of 1929, roughly a month before the market crashed. Money was right, but they managed to hold on to the farm, which is still owned by the family today. One of mom’s siblings (one of the 2 who lived to be 95 years old) wound up living in the house for a total of roughly 80 years. Two of my dad’s sisters never married. One of them worked at a small bank (Midway National) in St. Paul, and retired to a comfortable, but modest, lifestyle.

His other unmarried sister, terrified of running out of money, worked at Smead Manufacturing in Hastings until she was in her 80’s. Having witnessed the failure of banks in the 1930’s, as well as the stock market crash, she developed a strong preference for GUARANTEES, and kept virtually all her money in passbook savings accounts, due to the fact that the FDIC guaranteed up to $100,000. When she passed,  she had over $500,000 in six local banks, and almost all of that money was distributed to her many nieces and nephews.

It’’s not uncommon to read stories about lottery winners who eventually wind up bankrupt, but THE most popular image of the value of poverty is a picture that was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. Her picture, titled “migrant mother” (see below) shocked the nation, and led to immediate government assistance to people much like her. Her identity was not revealed until nearly 40 years later, when the world learned that her name was Florence Owens Thompson, a Native American women who was born in Indian Territory the same year that Sylvia Bloom was born in Brooklyn. In the year that the picture was taken, she was on her second marriage, and had given birth to 7 children. By the time of her death, she had married once again, and had given birth to 3 more children. She was 32 years old when the picture was taken, but looked roughly 20 years older than that.

Later in life, her 10 children bought her a small home in Modesto, California, but she found that she preferred living in a mobile home, and moved back into one. In a 2008 interview, one of her daughters (Katherine McIntosh), described her mother as a “very strong lady” and “the backbone of of our family”. She said, “we never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she always made sure we had something.” 

Like Sylvia Bloom’s story, Florence Thompson’s story also continues a very interesting twist.

In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with the image of “the migrant mother” on its face, one of the few times that the Post Office had issued a stamp honoring someone who had been dead less than 10 years.  In the same year that the stamp was issued, Dorothea Lange’s handwritten notes and signature were sold by Sotheby’s of New York for $244,500. Four years later, Lange’s personal print of “the migrant mother” was sold by Christie’s New York for $141. 500. In October of 2005, an anonymous buyer paid $296,000 for 32 rediscovered Lange photos, which was far more that the pre-auction price estimate.

In 1998, the late Robert Schuller published a book titled “Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do”. That title describes not only Sylvia Bloom and Florence Thompson, but also millions of other people who struggle with adversity, but still manage to survive all the setbacks that the world can throw at them.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself.

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