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When we think of philanthropy, it's usually as something that high-profile corporate moguls do with the spare millions (or billions) that they don't spend on mansions, yachts and private jets. We tend to overlook another, less common but even more inspiring category of givers: ordinary middle-class or working-class wage-earners who quietly amass sizable fortunes by practicing extreme frugality, and then, after their passing, shock some college or charitable cause with a seven-figure bequest. In Tennessee, for example, folks are probably still shaking their heads in wonderment about the Rev. Vertrue Sharp, a humble minister-turned-farmer who balked at paying 75 cents for coffee at a local diner, but upon his death in 1999 at age 94 left most of his $2 million estate to local hospitals and other charities. And in Minnesota, a humble Polish immigrant handyman named Joe Temeczko, who died in 2001 at the age of 86, left $1.4 million in his will to help New York City rebuild from the 9/11 attacks.
The latest member of the frugal philanthropy pantheon is Waldemar John Klasing, a resident of the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves who died on May 26 at the age of 100. Neighbors reportedly knew the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers veteran as a pensioner who took austerity to extremes; he wore a thin T-shirt and a rope through the belt loops of his trousers as he walked his dog around the neighborhood, kept the lights in his house low and endured steamy Midwestern summers without air conditioning. After Klasing passed away, though, they learned that he was far more well-to-do than anyone had imagined. News headlines revealed that he bequeathed more than $1 million to Washington University's school of engineering, from which he'd graduated back in 1938. Other than the thousands of dollars that he once spent on a spine operation for his beloved beagle Lucky, it was his lone grand gesture of generosity.
How Klasing, the offspring of working-class German immigrants who settled in St. Louis in the early 1900s, never married or had children, and how he managed to sock away that much money remains a bit of a mystery. There's not much information available about his career with the Corps of Engineers, except that he enlisted in 1941 and retired with the rank of Major in 1957, and no one seems to know if he worked in business afterward.
"Engineers are methodical thinkers who tend to be pretty wise with their investments," Dave Jolley, the engineering school's former director of development, told me.
Jolley, who got to know Klasing when he attended alumni events, recalls him as a plain-spoken man who freely shared his wisdom about life. "'Always ask why' - those were the words he lived by. He talked about the importance of questioning people and things, and looking for a better way to do something." But while the retiree with the threadbare attire was quick to offer advice on what speakers or activities should be planned, Jolley doesn't recall him ever talking about his own career achievements. "Waldemar," Jolley says, "was not one to talk about himself."
But Jolley, who visited Klasing at his home after he became too frail to attend meetings, does recall that he seemed very proud of his degree from Washington University, where the library still contains a 44-page thesis that he wrote in 1938 about redesigning the school's engineering lab. After all, he had earned his diploma during the Great Depression, in an era when few children of factory workers dared even to dream of such a goal. "Going to the university meant really something special to people from that era, even more so than it is now," Jolley explains. "When I brought him a Washington University T-shirt or a sweatshirt, he seemed really proud to wear it."
In the end, Jolley says, Klasing donated a princely sum to the engineering school because the civil engineer in him was concerned about maintaining the buildings, and about providing scholarships so that future generations would prepare to join his profession.