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Mr. Benefactor – Podcast #219

It’s November of 1949 and the 39,000 residents of the city of Aurora, Illinois had a strange mystery before them.  Some anonymous individual, in just a matter of days, had been handing out sizeable donations all over town.

The press never provided a complete accounting of who received what, but I was able to piece together a list of all the donations mentioned in the various news articles:

(The approximate multiplier to determine these donations in 2024 dollars is 13.  For example, $100 = 1,300 today, $1,000 = $13,000 today.)

  • An estimated one hundred individuals from all walks of life were given checks ranging in value from $100 and up. This included:
    • Seven children (all under age 13) were provided with $1,000 checks to further their education.
    • Two couples received an undisclosed amount of cash to purchase homes.
    • An elderly woman who supported both her daughter and granddaughter received a check.
    • Parents with large families.
    • College students in need of assistance.
  • A donation of $5,000 was made to both the Mercyville Sanitarium and the Jack & Jill Nursery.
  • The Sunnymere Old People’s Home received $6,000.
  • Mercy and St. Joseph Hospitals were both given $6,000 in cash plus $10,000 in bonds.
  • Trinity Episcopal Church received $15,000.
  • Aurora Mayor Lloyd H. Markel was handed a $25,000 check for the city to build a new auditorium.
  • And the grand prize of $50,000 was given to East Aurora school superintendent Karl D. Waldo to either build a new high school, add on to the existing structure, or to purchase equipment for either of these two options.

In total, the anonymous donor gave away $350,000 in a matter of weeks.  Adjusted for inflation, that works out to approximately $4.6 million today.

East Aurora Superintendent Karl D. Waldo.
East Aurora Superintendent Karl D. Waldo. (From the 1950 East Aurora High School yearbook.)

But just who was this mysterious man?  Inquiring minds want to know…

One man who did know the man’s identity was investment broker John K. Hucko, who, along with a Chicago trust company, had been named to administer the funds.  It was Hucko who had been handing out the bulk of the checks around the city.

According to an article in the February 26, 1950, publication of The American Weekly magazine, the anonymous donor, who wished only to be known as Mr. Benefactor, walked into his office one day and said, “I want to give my money away while I’m still here to see people get pleasure from it.” 

He added, “I want to do something for the city my family loved. It’s been good to us, and so have a lot of folks. I don’t want any thanks or attention. That’s why you’re going to give it away for me. Now here’s my list.”

(Note: American Weekly was known for embellishing stories, so it is doubtful those exact words were ever said. But a similar conversation did take place and there is no question that Mr. Benefactor asked Hucko to give all his money away for him.)

In truth, many of the recipients of the anonymous donor’s gifts were aware of his identity. However, they had all solemnly pledged to keep his identity secret, and true to their word, they were keeping their traps shut.

But someone must have spilled the beans.  On Tuesday, November 8, 1949, Mr. Benefactor found himself on the receiving end of a phone call from a Chicago Tribune reporter, seeking clarification. The elderly gentleman had been residing in a room at Aurora’s Leland Hotel, once the tallest building in Illinois outside of Chicago and today is known as Leland Tower.

One thing that was immediately clear was that this generous man was gravely ill. He spoke with a weak, raspy voice and adamantly avoided any discussion about the specifics of his condition. While it was established that his condition was terminal, he would not discuss how much longer he had to live.

This self-appointed Santa Claus agreed to share his story only after securing a pledge from the reporter that his identity would remain undisclosed.

“I am requesting that my name not be made public because I do not want it to appear that I am doing what I am doing to obtain publicity or glory. My only purpose is to make happy, while I am still alive, those dear friends who have been thoughtful of me and my late wife and sisters.”

The newspaperman did keep his word, but by the time the story went to press the next day, everyone would know Mr. Benefactor’s name.  That’s because after the interview was over, he mentioned to his close friend Superintendent Waldo that “it’s out now.”  He only meant that his attempt to avoid publicity was over, but Waldo interpreted that to mean that the man’s identity was no longer a secret.  After that, the whole world would know who the man was.

James Powell aka Mr. Benefactor.
James Powell aka Mr. Benefactor. (From the author’s collection.)

He was 74-year-old James Powell, Jr., a retired insurance broker and real estate man. Born in Aurora on March 31, 1875, he was the youngest of five children.  In birth order, they were George, Ella, Grace, Mina, and, finally, James Jr.   Interestingly, none of his three sisters would ever marry.

After graduating from East Aurora High School in 1894, he joined his father’s real estate firm James Powell and Son. Technically, with his older brother George involved, it should have been named James Powell and Sons.

In 1903, he teamed up with Joseph Reid to establish Powell & Reid, a firm specializing in real estate, loans, and insurance. He continued in this profession until his retirement. Needless to say, James Powell, Jr. amassed considerable wealth in the process.

On April 18, 1911, when he was 36 years old, Powell married 32-year-old Helen Morgan.

The two had a very happy marriage, but never had children.  As they grew older, each and every member of their families would pass on. Each of James’ siblings would die in the order of their birth. Luckily, the two had one another. 

That would all change on June 1, 1949.  That’s when 70-year-old Helen passed away in St. Joseph’s Hospital. Their 38-year love affair had sadly come to an end.

Being in failing health himself, James decided that it was in his best interest to relocate to the Leland Hotel. There he would be able to have hotel staff care for him as he lived out his final days in semi-seclusion.

It was while he was there that he thought back to all of the joy Christmas giving had brought to both Helen and him.  So, with no close relatives remaining, he decided to give his entire fortune away.  Well, not exactly his entire fortune.  He did hold on to a trust fund, the proceeds of which would cover his care for the remainder of his life. Powell was certain that his wife would have approved of his plan.

Naturally, as news of his generosity spread through newspapers nationwide, everyone clamored for a piece of the pie.  They apparently missed or ignored the portion of the story where Powell mentioned that he had dispensed with the last of his fortune. Needless to say, a flood of telegrams, phone calls, and letters requesting money poured in. Six women proposed marriage, while others requested funds to pay for everything ranging from dentures to wooden legs. On top of all that, reporters and photographers showed up at the hotel requesting to see him.  Powell’s only option was to have the telephone disconnected and to hide out in his room.

On November 24, 1949, as the citizens of Aurora awoke to begin their final preparations for the Thanksgiving feast, they received the somber news that James Powell had quietly passed away in his hotel room shortly after midnight. This was just sixteen days after he had completed giving away his fortune.

Tombstone of James Powell in West Big Rock Cemetery.
Tombstone of James Powell in West Big Rock Cemetery. (Find-a-Grave image.)

Just as in life, Powell requested that his funeral be a quiet affair.  There was a brief, private ceremony held just prior to him being lowered into the ground in the West Big Rock Cemetery, next to where his wife Helen had been buried nearly six months earlier.

James Powell may have been gone, but his generosity did not cease in death. In April 1950, attorney David B. Givler, the executor of his estate announced that the trust fund that Powell had left was much larger than originally thought.  That’s mainly because Powell had invested much of it in stocks for a new-fangled invention called television. (Maybe you’ve heard of it.) As a result, his estate had grown to $147,618. (Approximately $1.92 million today.)

His will specified that three of his distant relatives would receive $25,000 each.  But a codicil to that document invalidated those bequests because Powell had already given it to them. That meant that the entire amount went to the remaining beneficiary named, which just happened to be the East Aurora High School.

So just what did the school do with the money?

In the school’s 1950 yearbook, high school principal John Gates wrote, “The most recent project undertaken by the board, with the aid of the P.T.A., is that of a building program, possibly including a new high school. Although there have been discussions concerning a new high school or addition, the plans are still in the nebulous stage. The building has been brought into focus during the past year by the gift by James Powell in the amount of $50,000 plus the rest of a $147,618 estate less taxes.”

1958 East Aurora High School Yearbook photo of Superintendent John W. Gates.
1958 East Aurora High School Yearbook photo of Superintendent John W. Gates.

And it’s those darn taxes that really chipped away at that amount.  By the time Powell’s estate was completely settled three years later, taxes and fees had reduced the balance to $78,671. (Approximately $924,000 today.)

By this time, Gates had been promoted to superintendent and told the press that this sum, coupled with the original $50,000 donation, would be used to help pay for a brand new high school, which was estimated to cost around $4 million.

That new school would open in September 1957, and is still in use today, although the number of buildings on the campus has been increased.

In his honor, the new school’s library was named the “James Powell Library,” although I wonder if that name is still in use today.  And if it weren’t, that probably would have been fine with James Powell, a man who wished to pass on his fortune in anonymity.

At the very least, Powell lived long enough to witness the fulfillment of his wish—to see others benefit from his fortune. And today, the students at East Aurora High School are still benefiting from one man’s incredible generosity. Even if they have no clue who he was.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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