How one retired janitor became a multi-millionaire

A quiet, frugal Vermont man shocked locals when he gifted $6 million to a library and a hospital. What was his secret?

Brattleboro Reformer/AP Photo/File
In this December 2011 photo, Connie Howe pours coffee for Ronald Read, left, and Dave Smith during the Charlie Slate Memorial Christmas breakfast at the American Legion in Brattleboro, Vt. Read, a former gas station employee and janitor who died in June 2014 at age 92, had a long-time habit of foraging for firewood but also had a hidden talent for picking stocks. After his death he bequeathed $6 million to his local library and hospital.

When elderly Ronald Read died last year, he was a retired janitor and gas station attendant.

So when residents of his hometown of Brattleboro, Vt. learned that he had left about $6 million to the local library and hospital, they were appropriately stunned.

"You'd never know the man was a millionaire," Read’s attorney, Laurie Rowell, told Reuters.

Friends agreed: Read was both private and frugal. He spent his days dressed in well-worn flannels and a baseball cap, and was “an ardent outdoorsman” who cut and gathered his own firewood, according to his obituary in the Brattleboro Reformer.

He drove a second-hand Toyota Yaris, which Ms. Rowell said he would park far away when he visited her office so he wouldn’t have to pay the meter.

His only attempt at excess was spending for breakfast at the local coffee shop, where once another customer paid for his bill, assuming Read couldn’t afford it, according to Rowell.

Yet somehow Read left $4.8 million to the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and $1.2 million to the Brooks Memorial Library, the largest individual donations either institution had ever received, the Reformer reported.  

How did he did do it?

A regular reader of The Wall Street Journal, Read turned out to be just as savvy at picking stocks as he was at chopping firewood.

"Investing and cutting wood, he was good at both of them," Rowell told Reuters.

Graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1940 – the first in his family – Read was a veteran of World War II, serving in North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific before coming home toward the end of 1945, the Reformer reported.

He was an attendant at a local Haviland gas station for about 25 years, then worked as a janitor at JCPenney before retiring in 1997 at 76.

Neither the library nor the hospital have as yet decided what to do with their newfound funds, though Gina Pattison, director of development and marketing at Brattleboro Memorial, told the Reformer that they’ll likely use the money for large-scale projects and infrastructure improvements.

“We are very appreciative of what Mr. Read left,” Ms. Pattison said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Jerry Carbone, executive director at Brooks Memorial Library, was just as grateful.

“This bequest is… transformative,” he told the Reformer. "It's going to really provide for our future and relevance in the community and allow us to keep up with the times, and keep up with what this community needs to access quality library services."

"I feel like Mr. Read was a self-made man,” Mr. Carbone added. “He did not have a formal education, but he was very smart and he realized the impact that an institution like a library has on an individual."

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