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.