Woman of modest means leaves $741,000 to charities

Sunday, August 8, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The largest bequest ever given to two St. Louis charities came not from a magnanimous millionaire, but from a 90-year-old cashier and bookkeeper whose greatest wealth was her generous spirit. Well, that, and her trust account.

When Mary James died late last year, she directed that all of her $741,908 estate be split between two charities, St. Louis Variety, the Children's Charity, and the St. Louis chapter of American Parkinson Disease Association.

The heads of Variety and the Parkinson Disease Association say the bequest is the largest ever given to their organizations by an individual. Both devote much of their resources to free services for people without Medicaid or other insurance.

Susan Levin, the Parkinson Disease Association's St. Louis coordinator, said the money will fund patient service programs, ranging from support groups to respite care and exercise classes. The programs make a big difference in the lives of thousands of Parkinson's disease sufferers and their families across the state, who sometimes pay hundreds of dollars each month for medication alone.

"We do not charge for any of our services, and that's why this is such a wonderful gift," Levin said.

Levin said the association would not spend the gift right away, but would try to stretch it to help as many people as possible.

Jan Albus, St. Louis Variety's executive director, said that organization's share would be endowed in a fund that purchases medical equipment for mentally and physically disabled children. It currently serves about 1,300 children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or the loss of a limb.

"The average child is going to cost us between $40,000 and $50,000 until age 21," Albus said. "This is just a huge gift."

Mitch West, who managed James' trust account, said that it's not so surprising that an ordinary person would amass such an amount over a lifetime.

"Many people are like Mary. They worked and they saved," West said. "She was just a very kind, generous person who was interested in people and wanted to do the best she could."

West didn't know why she picked the charities she did.

James was hired as a cashier and bookkeeper for General Motors in 1936. She continued working, as a bookkeeper and for the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service, until she was 89. James spent a few years in between caring for her mother until her death.

Lemuel Weaver lived around the corner from James in a working-class neighborhood in suburban St. Louis. He had known her since 1993, and occasionally helped her with yard work around her brick bungalow.

"All I can say is that she was a beautiful person. Beautiful personality, nice smile, and didn't mind helping anybody," Weaver said.

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