ABOUT EIGHT YEARS AGO, JOHN Hill was helping his elderly friend Agnes Plumb add up some figures for her bank deposit, when he came across what he assumed was an error. Amid the entries for $50, $100 and $2,000 checks was one for $474,000. “Are you sure you got this right?” Hill asked Plumb. “Oh yeah,” she replied. “That’s the right amount.” At that moment, says Hill, he realized “she had to have a lot of money.”
As it turns out, he was still, relatively, clueless, and so was almost everyone else who knew Plumb. Last month her accountant Paul Armond revealed that the obscure Studio City, Calif., woman—who died a year ago at 88—had left a staggering $107 million estate, donating most of it to charities such as the Crippled Children’s Society and the Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles and bequeathing her home to Hill’s wife, Lee, who had cooked for her.
There were few signs that Plumb, who had lived in the same rambling wooden house for almost 60 years, was sitting on a fortune. Suffering from heart disease and phlebitis, she spent her final years as a recluse, eating Egg McMuffins and delighting in her doll collection, her cats and her crossword puzzles. “She was a sweet, unassuming lady,” says Armond, “who never thought of herself as worthy of people rolling out a red carpet for her.”
Certainly she lived humbly. For much of her adult life, Plumb cared for her mother, Edith, who had been confined to a wheelchair after robbers threw her down the steps of the family home. Agnes’s father, Henry, a lawyer, was friends with W.K. Kellogg, who convinced him to buy shares in his new cereal business. The stock stayed in the family and “just kept splitting,” says Armond. Eventually, Agnes inherited the lot: 1.3 million shares, which were worth $96 million when she died. Looking back, says Hill, he should have guessed the significance of all those cereal boxes in Plumb’s kitchen cabinets. “If Kellogg’s made it,” he recalls with a smile, “she bought it.”