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Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, all names you'd expect to see on the Philanthropy 50. That's the Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of the past year's 50 most generous donors. But the list, which was released this week, also includes some names you've probably never heard of, including this one at number 50: Millicent Atkins.
BLOCK: Atkins died in 2012 and left a $37 million estate to three beneficiaries, including the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. When university officials learned of the gift, they were stunned. They had no clue who Millicent Atkins was or what inspired her generosity. So the University of Minnesota Foundation sent Jane Godfrey, director of Trusts and Estates, to Atkins's South Dakota hometown for some answers.
She learned that Atkins had attended the college back when it was more of a vocational school. Atkins was only there for one year and went on to great success in farming.
JANE GODFREY: It was really a wonderful story. She'd grown up on a farm that was originally homesteaded by her grandparents. And she went to live on the farm with her father, after her mother died when she was 25 years old. And she learned the farm business from her father and inherited some of the land from him, and then accumulated the rest through her business savvy in farming.
BLOCK: You went up to South Dakota around Aberdeen where, by the end, she owned about more than 4,000 acres of prime farmland. And you talked to a bunch of people who knew her, who were tenant farmers or worked with her. What did they tell you about why she was so good at what she did?
GODFREY: What they said, first of all, that she was very smart. They described her as a lifelong learner. She would spend time at the grain elevator in Columbia, South Dakota, very near Aberdeen and near the farm. And she would just listen to the conversations by the farmers. And if there was something that she didn't understand she would quiz them about it, so that through the years she became very knowledgeable about the farming business.
We also heard that she just naturally had an instinct for spotting the parcels of land that would be most productive, and that she was very savvy and a tough bidder at farmer auctions. We heard from those who knew her that she was a woman in a man's world, that they would often see her car circulating around the farmland and at various meetings of the growers association, but she would be the only woman there.
BLOCK: I was struck by something that one of the tenant farmers told you, which is that she had a very clear memory of the Dust Bowl and the lessons of those dust storms stayed with her for the rest of her time.
GODFREY: That's right. It was interesting. They told us that sometimes the tenants would want to cut a line of trees to have more land for farming. And she would tell them no because she understood the importance of trees to soil conservation. She used to go and attend lectures about soil conservation so that she could be sure that the mistakes of the Dust Bowl would not be repeated.
BLOCK: When you went to South Dakota and talked to these people who knew Millicent Atkins all these years, did they have any idea that she had accumulated this much wealth?
GODFREY: They really didn't. Many of them knew that she owned the farmland but she herself looked very modestly. So I don't think anyone knew the magnitude of her estate.
BLOCK: Well, Millicent Atkins only went for one year to the agriculture school at the University of Minnesota. By all accounts, she was quite homesick. She went back to South Dakota. Did she give any indication of why she decided to leave a third of her estate to your school?
GODFREY: We don't know for sure. We, of course, love the opportunity to talk with donors before we receive the estate gift so that we can thank them and learn a little bit about how they might want to use the gift. But we didn't get the opportunity with Millicent. So the only thing we had to go by were what some of her friends told us and that was that she did enjoy your time at the university. And we also learned that her mother graduated from the agriculture school in 1905. So I assume that probably had a role in her thinking.
Well, Jane Godfrey, it's good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Jane Godfrey of the University of Minnesota Foundation.
Well, we wondered how unusual Millicent Atkins is among philanthropists. And we'll put that question now to the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stacy Palmer. Ms. Palmer, welcome.
STACY PALMER: Nice to join you.
BLOCK: Is it unusual for a recipient of a large gift, in the millions, like this one, not to have had any inkling of that ahead of time?
PALMER: It's certainly unusual but it's not unheard of. As a matter of fact, on our list of the 50 biggest donors of last year, we found several of these donors who had had no contact with the institution that they gave millions and millions of dollars to.
BLOCK: Well, Millicent Atkins was an only child. She never married. She never had any children of her own. Would that be typical? Would the other relatively unknown philanthropists be people generally who don't have heirs?
PALMER: Mostly it is people who don't have children to leave money to. And I think one of the things that many wealthy people debate though is: How much money should I give to my children? So I think it's possible that you might see that kind of thing happening even when people do have kids. But in a lot of these cases, there isn't anybody else to leave the money to. And philanthropists have been thinking of this idea but just not telling anybody at all. And many times, people don't even know that they're very rich, just like Millicent Atkins. Their neighbors have no idea that these are very rich people.
BLOCK: Really, so you do hear that? Like, we just had no idea that they had all this money.
PALMER: Absolutely, and one the things that's really stunning is how frugal many of these people are. They really care about being able to leave as much money as they can to charity. So they're amassing it and being very careful with it. And then when they die, they have millions and millions of dollars that they shock these charities with.
BLOCK: Is there one story of a philanthropist over the years that really strikes you as especially extraordinary, of someone who, you know, maybe had money in the mattress or just had amassed a lot of fortune without anyone knowing it?
PALMER: One of the more recent ones is a Seattle lawyer named Jack McDonald who gave a fortune to three charities, and one of those was the Salvation Army. And they knew him only as a $10 or $20 donor, and yet he left them nearly $40 million. And Jeffrey Carlton left another similarly big gift to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. And they also just knew him as a very small donor.
And what's great about this is those are organizations that don't get these multimillion dollar donations all the time. Colleges and universities get them; we're used to seeing that. But these donors are giving to groups that don't often get these very big gifts. In one case, the gift was so large that it was four times the annual budget of the group that was operating, an Alzheimer's group in Los Angeles. So it really transforms how these organizations are able to operate.
BLOCK: Stacy Palmer, she's editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Ms. Palmer, thanks so much.
PALMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.