Seattle man’s frugal life leaves rich legacy for 3 institutions
A Seattle attorney who amassed a fortune through frugal living and stock investments has left $187.6 million to Seattle Children’s, the UW School of Law and the Salvation Army.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
When he spotted a bargain price on frozen orange juice one year, Jack MacDonald bought so many cans that he had to purchase a new stand-alone freezer just to hold them all.
He clipped coupons, wore sweaters with holes in them to make people think he was poor and took a bus — not a cab — to the University of Washington when he attended an alumni luncheon in his later years.
Only a tight circle of family and friends knew that MacDonald was nurturing a secret fortune. When he died in September at the age of 98, he left in his will a $187.6 million charitable trust to Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the University of Washington School of Law and the Salvation Army.
It is the largest philanthropic gift in Washington state this year, and the sixth-largest in the country in 2013, Children’s officials said.
“I thought of him in many ways as a gentle giant,” said Doug Picha, president of the Seattle Children’s Foundation, who was a friend of MacDonald’s for 30 years. “He was tall, very shy, very understated, humble. You would never have known that he had great wealth.”
Although he left 40 percent of his fortune to Seattle Children’s, MacDonald had no children of his own.
He was born in British Columbia, grew up in Seattle and worked for three decades as an attorney for the Veterans Administration, since superseded by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the years he supported hundreds of causes with smaller donations, including $536,000 to Children’s and anonymous gifts to a small town in Canada where his parents are buried.
At the same time, he was working to build a much larger trust to leave as his legacy, investing funds from money his parents left him from profits they’d made in their business, MacDonald Meat Co. in Seattle.
When it came to picking stocks, “he was amazing,” said his stepdaughter, Regen Dennis, of Utah. “He didn’t trust a lot of other people to do his research; he directed what he wanted bought, and he really knew what he wanted.”
He also knew exactly where he wanted the money to go: to Children’s, because his mother, Katherine, was a longtime fundraiser, with roots going back to the hospital’s early years; to the UW law school, where he earned his law degree in 1940; and to the Salvation Army, because his father, Frederick, worked closely with many blue-collar workers, Dennis said.
“He was very, very loyal to his parents’ wishes,” she said.
Sweaters with holes
Over the years, MacDonald sent about $150,000 — anonymously, at first — to the little village of Elora, Canada, where his paternal grandfather lived after emigrating from Scotland.
It was a welcome gift for the Ontario town, and leaders used it to help a number of municipal projects, including an ice rink and rebuilding the town hall.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but we’re not a big town, and without his contribution we wouldn’t have been able to build it (the town hall),” said Steve Thorning, who served on the town council in the 1990s.
Elora named the central square in MacDonald’s honor, and asked him to be the parade marshal at the dedication, Thorning said. MacDonald is buried in Elora, along with his parents.
Like many others, Thorning was struck by MacDonald’s shy demeanor. “I guess that’s kind of typical for guys that have some substance — they’re kind of quiet,” he said.
MacDonald did not get married until 1971, when he was in his 50s, to Mary Katherine Moore, a widow with two grown children.
When it became apparent that her mother’s new husband had a huge trust at his disposal, Dennis asked them, “Why don’t you move to an elegant big house, or get a new car?”
But material possessions weren’t important to MacDonald: “They were happy the way they were,” she said. “They were very comfortable, and they had a beautiful garden.”
Dennis said her mother “really opened the doors to his life.” Vivacious and social, Mary hosted dinner parties and persuaded him to travel. The two took extensive tours throughout Europe and visited Australia, Canada and Africa.
MacDonald and his wife moved in 1997 to the Horizon House retirement community, where Mary died in 1999. In the retirement home, MacDonald continued to keep his hand in the stock market while nurturing his image as a man without means, even wearing sweaters with holes in the elbows.
“Jack went out of his way to look poor, partly because he didn’t want to be badgered by people who wanted money,” Dennis said.
Picha, of Children’s, often visited MacDonald at Horizon House, where copies of The Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine were stacked on both sides of his favorite chair. His routine included an early-morning workout, a visit to the grocery store and a walk to his stockbroker to check on his accounts, Picha said.
MacDonald sometimes visited the hospital as well. “He was drawn to the patient stories,” Picha said. “There was a lot of hope in those stories, and that really resonated with him.”
Generic drugs at end
Forty percent of the trust’s yearly income, or about $3.75 million in the first year, will support pediatric research at Seattle Children’s. It is the largest single gift ever made in the U.S. in support of pediatric research, Children’s officials said.
Some of the money will be used to provide matches to other donations, increasing the power of MacDonald’s gift.
Thirty percent of the trust’s income, or about $3 million a year, will go to fund student scholarships and general education needs at the UW law school, and to create the Jack MacDonald Endowed Chair. It’s the largest gift to the law school in its history, and the largest estate gift to the UW as a whole.
When the gift was announced at the law school on Monday, in a classroom named after him, the faculty and staff gasped at the size, said spokeswoman Alison Jones. “It was a huge surprise.”
The remaining 30 percent of the trust’s income will support The Salvation Army Northwest Division, which will receive just under $3 million in the first year.
Salvation Army officials said the gift also came as a surprise to them. “We didn’t know him, but he definitely knew us,” said Major Douglas Tollerud, divisional commander, in a statement.
In July, MacDonald took a serious fall and was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where doctors began treating him for a head injury that would eventually end his life. Even in the middle of the emergency, MacDonald had the presence of mind to insist that the neurosurgeon treat him with generic drugs.
“It’s so Jack,” said Dennis, his stepdaughter. “The neurosurgeon is trying to keep the man alive, and he says, ‘I don’t want those expensive brand-name drugs.’ ”
Dennis said she helped MacDonald write his obituary three years earlier, when he had a health scare, and he told her that he wanted to be remembered as a philanthropist.
“He felt really good about what he was doing with his money,” Dennis said, “and our family feels good about what he’s doing with his money.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.