(MODESTO, Calif.) — She was taught by her mother to never waste a thing. She never purchased a dryer, hanging her laundry on a clothesline in the backyard. She painted her home when it needed a touch-up and mowed her lawn until her early 90s. She refused to go to restaurants, the movies or pay for cable TV.
It could be said she took frugality to a whole new level.
Needless to say, it was a shock when a check for $1,731,533.91 from the estate of Elinor Sauerwein was presented to a California branch of the Salvation Army last Christmas Eve.
“It was a surprise and a blessing,” Capt. Michael Paugh of the Salvation Army in Modesto told ABC News.
Paugh was getting ready to head home for the holidays when he got a call from John Bullock, Sauerwein’s longtime friend and financial adviser, who had power of attorney over her affairs. Bullock was on his way over to present the freshly printed check to the charity.
“She said every dollar I save is another dollar that could go to the Salvation Army. Her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army,” Bullock told ABC News. “She did an excellent job at it.”
Sauerwein grew her own fruits and vegetables in her meager backyard, and even at age 90 would climb to the top of a ladder to pick them. The extreme frugality certainly paid off: At the time of her death, Sauerwein had amassed almost $2 million in savings.
Taking the early advice from her mother to heart — or some might say to extremes — Sauerwein rarely splurged. She went on vacation only once in her life, dragged to Hawaii by a friend, said Bullock. Once she returned, Bullock said she continued to justify her “spending spree” to him for months to come.
“Most people around her thought she was poor. Sauerwin’s friends knew she had money, but they just didn’t know how much,” Bullock told ABC News.
By all accounts, the scrimping started early. In the late 1930s, after she’d graduated from college, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Crookston, Neb., traveling to her job on horseback. When she arrived, she’d light a fire to warm the room for the schoolchildren, teach, clean the room and hop back on her horse for the ride home.
She soon met her husband, Harold, and they married in 1945 and moved to California, settling in Modesto, where Sauerwein cooked for ranch hands on the ranch where her husband landed a job. She later worked at LM Morris business machines, according to the Modesto Bee.
Harold Sauerwein became a contractor and built their two-bedroom home with his own hands, said Bullock. Harold, said Bullock, was just as conservative as his wife when it came to spending money. When Harold Sauerwein died in 1994, Bullock promised him he would “look after Elinor.”
Elinor Sauerwein continued her husband’s investments — which started with discounted loans, according to the Modesto Bee. She continued to make money, but no one would ever guess it by her lifestyle, said Bullock.
“She lived like she was poor,” he told ABC News.
When Elinor Sauerwein died on Oct. 30, 2010, Bullock started compiling her funds for the big donation that she’d planned for “years and years.” By December 2011, everything was in order. The only restriction on the money was that the Salvation Army had to use it in the Modesto community. This posed no problem, said Paugh, and the charity was happy to comply.
“The money will stay in the community. The neat thing is we stick it in an endowment, and her gift will be helping people 50 years from now, even 70 years from now,” Paugh told ABC News.
“Her gift will keep on giving for years to come.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jackie Wattles and Rene Marsh, CNN
Pat Reavy, CNN
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Dan Berman, CNN