August 18, 1997 12:00 PM

AT CHICAGO’S CHILDREN’S Memorial Hospital, Gladys Holm, who died last year at 86, was known as “the Teddy Bear Lady” because she liked to give stuffed animals to young patients. She was equally happy telling no-goodniks that they could get stuffed. On one occasion, she and her full-time caretaker Lisa Tarenski, now 48, were waiting at an intersection in Holm’s 1976 cherry red Cadillac when they spotted another motorist driving toward a group of children trying to cross the street. “That car better let those children go by, or I’m going to give him one of these,” Holm said, waving her index finger in the air. When Tarenski explained that the middle finger was the nasty one, Holm, who suffered from crippling arthritis, replied with a laugh, “I know, but I can’t get that one up!”

Now Holm will be remembered for more than plush toys and feistiness. In a stunning act of generosity, the retired secretary, who lived alone in an Evanston townhouse and never earned more than $15,000 a year, left $18 million to Children’s Hospital—the medical center’s largest bequest ever. Holm became acquainted with the hospital 44 years ago when staffers saved the life of a friend’s daughter. The size of the gift, says Children’s CEO Jan Jennings, left him “speechless.”

So where did Holm, the only child of Swedish immigrants, come up with that kind of scratch? For 41 years, as a secretary to American Hospital Supply Corp. president Foster McGaw, Holm copied her boss’s stock market trades—if he bought 1,000 shares of a company, she reportedly bought 10. Over the years it added up. And up. A gregarious six-footer who favored red dresses, she retired in 1969 due to arthritis but always adhered, says Tarenski, to her motto: “I’m going to live until I die.” Thanks to Holm’s gift, her spirit will survive even longer.

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