Secretary, Multi-millionaire, Philanthropist

crispydoc Uncategorized 9 Comments

Last week, I read this incredible story in the New York Times about Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old legal secretary who lived humbly and left an eight million dollar legacy to local charities on her death.

A few highlights in the life of an extraordinary woman:

  • She worked for 67 years and retired at age 96

  • She was the daughter of immigrants, survived the Great Depression, and worked while attending night school

  • She always took the subway to work – up until she retired, even in snowstorms

  • She kept her maiden name even after marriage – rare for the time, perhaps telling of her personality

  • She left the bulk of her fortune to a well-established social support center serving homeless and low-income residents of NYC

As a human being, I love seeing stories like this. It’s less about the millions, more about what a profoundly decent and civic-minded person it takes to do something like this. First, you must possess the financial discipline to save and invest wisely for nearly a century. She clearly learned such skills at a time when they were not widespread, and became attuned to the investment techniques of her colleagues at work.

Of the few people that can master that step, there’s an understandable tendency to make the accumulation of money for it’s own sake a central part of your life, which is why the next step is so astonishing – she was able to prodigiously save money and walk away from spending it on herself or her immediate circle. It’s hard to work so hard to accumulate something and then let it go so generously.

Other aspects of the story resonate with me as well. The immigrant from humble origins who struggled through tough times and never lost sight of those still struggling. The fact that someone who could be the poster girl for pulling herself up by her own bootstraps insisted on leaving her money to help those at the bottom. There’s a tendency to feel-imposed upon when progressive tax codes mandate high taxes for high earners. Her gift implies a lack of such resentment.

There’s also the savvy estate planning side – over eight million donated with the benefit of the step-up in basis at death, which will not be taxed thanks to it’s donation to non-profit organizations! That’s the kind of farewell that would send me to the grave smiling.

Sylvia Bloom was a remarkable and uncharacteristic pioneer in a time when women had limited opportunities. It’s a bit disheartening to think of how many nameless superstar women did not reach their full potential, were not encouraged to develop their talent, and did not contribute to our society because societal norms served as barriers to their success.

Sylvia, thank you.

I’m telling my daughter about you.

I hope she learns from your discipline and generosity.

I hope she doesn’t need to be half as tough as you were to accomplish a measure of what you did.

Comments 9

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  1. That is an awesome story. Thanks for sharing. Some people are definitely wired differently and that is a good thing. I know for a fact that I would have joined the retiree community with funds reaching that amount (actually well before that).

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      Burnout and other embittering experiences (heartbreak, divorce, lawsuits) can breed both the desire to check out completely and the desire to withdraw from society. When I find folks who “won the game” in Bernstein’s parlance and not only continued playing for the joy of it but left their considerable winnings in the service of others, it forces me out of my cocoon of comfort and complacency by providing a call to action.

      Don’t underestimate yourself, xrayvsn. You are recovering from some brutal events but I suspect even as a retiree you’d find a way to contribute to others’ well-being.

      1. Thanks so much for the kind words. To be honest, I think the great thing about starting a blog is now it has given me a sense of purpose beyond my normal W2 job.

        Everyone mentions you have to retire to something and not away from something. All this time I kind of didn’t have that “to something.” Sure I envision some vacations to places I always to go but you can only do that for so many weeks a year. What do you do for the other 45 or so?

        I was worried I might become a couch potato otherwise. This blogging has spurred my intellectual side again. So hopefully this is something that will keep my mind sharp for many years to come.

  2. Hello Crispy Doc,

    I take the bus to our office once a week and catch a ride back with my husband. Saves gas and better for the environment.

    Are you planning to pull the trigger from work? Is it hard return if you change your mind a few years later??

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      Dr. MB,

      Public transportation in LA is regrettably an underdeveloped resource. Given the poor lighting along our area roads and the unique hours that emergency shifts tend to be scheduled for, cycling is not a terribly safe option either. But I do reconsider if there might be a better way to commute every few years.

      As for pulling the trigger, I’m feeling like I’ll keep trying to eliminate the unpleasant aspects of work instead of leaving altogether, since I do like my job most of the time. As of now, I’m working 6 shifts per month, so my work-life balance is heavily tilted in favor of life. What might the future hold? Although we’ve technically reached our FI number, I like the idea that we’ve aggressively front-loaded our savings and we can decelerate our annual income to cover expenses without stressing about continuing retirement contributions.

      That could mean investigating whether my group would allow transition to a per diem position where I cut out nights and weekends…a boy can dream, can’t he?

      Always enjoy reading about your journey and the discipline that brought you there,


  3. Hello CD!

    Definitely ask for less call and weekend work. You never know. My husband who is a surgeon did not do weekend call for many years since some of his colleagues wanted to make more money. After a while, a few would quietly ask him if they could take his call. You would be surprised who wants to work them.

    Your plan sounds pretty great. Working 6 shifts per month sounds awesome. Maybe even think about taking 3- 6 months off instead when you children are older.

    I hope you get less “crispy” with the lower amount of work. Knowing you have FI should help manage the shifts better.

  4. This reminds me of a story I heard about years ago in the New York Times about a woman who left her entire fortune to a college and she was by no means wealthy, but incredibly frugal. A philanthropists to the core as she did not even attend college. She helped a young woman who was a good student be able to afford to go to college and they stayed friend for the rest of her life. Helping others can go a long way.


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