Gifts of millions provided a new image

December 23, 1992|By The Kansas City Star

Friends charitably called Leonard Johnson conservative. They could just as easily have called him cheap.

He handed out Christmas cards to save postage, boiled water in an old coffee can and splurged by blowing $2 on oranges from time to time.

Leonard Johnson was a man with millions in the bank.

"I think it was a disgrace he didn't enjoy any of it," said longtime friend Jerry Tomka. "All he knew was money, money, money. He liked to save it."

And when they buried the 92-year-old Nebraska native last year, just seven people were at his grave.

Yet today, total strangers want to pay tribute to his memory.

Funny how posthumous gifts of millions can change your image.

"Leonard Johnson was a mystery man for us until very recently," said Myrvin Christopherson, president of Dana College in Blair, Neb. "Then we got his check, and people around here think pretty highly of him now."

Mr. Johnson lived cheap and died generous, and the bachelor's estate gave out family-sized donations to some Nebraska organizations just in time for Christmas.

After he sold his family farm in the mid-1950s, the Omaha native turned his energy to investing his money, mostly in blue-chip stocks such as AT&T.

"He never sold anything," said Lewis Leigh, his attorney. "He just kept it and watched it grow."

Mr. Johnson lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Omaha and settled into a solitary life.

Mr. Johnson was a simple man who "lived on cracked wheat bread, pork chops and . . . coffee. I don't know how he ever lived to be 92," said Mr. Tomka

Mr. Johnson died in 1991, but it took a year to sort out his will.

To six people -- some cousins and Mr. Tomka -- Mr. Johnson left money, but the largest individual amount was no more than $50,000.

Mr. Tomka's share was $15,000. "I just barely got my gas money," he said.

Mr. Johnson ordered that the rest of his estate be given to Dana College, to the Masonic Eastern Star Home for Children in Fremont, Neb., and to the Omaha Division of the Salvation Army. The three institutions each got $1,627,000.

Dana College will use the money to help replace a classroom building and chapel. At the Fremont children's home, the money will go into an endowment fund and should generate about $100,000 a year in interest -- which will cover almost a sixth of the home's yearly operating costs. The Salvation Army will use Mr. Johnson's money to help remodel a 70-year-old social service center in Omaha.

"It's one of those situations where we wish he was alive so we could thank him and befriend him," said Ron Tollerud, a Salvation Army official. "We would have liked to have known him."

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