Clean Money

June 16, 1995|By San Francisco Examiner

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was only laundry money.

But the $1.3 million that Margaret Frances Wosser collected, quarter by quarter, at her Castro District Wash and Dry over the past three decades is not something Bay Area charities will soon forget.

The 79-year-old laundromat owner's death last weekend left the Castro without one of its most precious characters. But Ms. Wosser's habit has become the saving grace of charities that help people with AIDS, drug addicts and homeless people throughout San Francisco.

"She was self-made," said the Rev. Robert McCann of the Episcopal Diocese of California, which received $1 million from Ms. Wosser's estate to do charity work in the city, even though Ms. Wosser was never a member of the church. "She could be tough, but she could be extremely generous."

In addition to the $1 million that she bequeathed to the church for work with the poor, Ms. Wosser gave to the public library, the Exploratorium, the Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum and the San Francisco Zoological Society.

But for many of those who did their bleaching and folding in the presence of Ms. Wosser over the years, it wasn't the money that mattered. On Tuesday, dozens of Castro residents gathered at her laundry to pay their final respects to the laundromat owner, who became a local fixture after buying and renovating the business in the mid-1960s.

Now, all the Maytag washers have stopped spinning and the tumbling of the Speed Queen dryers has ceased. The old linoleum table where patrons folded clothes has been turned into a makeshift funeral altar, covered with candles and flowers.

Ms. Wosser never acted like a millionaire. In the afternoons she could be found on her street crouched over her broom. For years, her friends said, she swept the whole block every day.

Her life was dominated by small change. She provided quarters for many of the neighborhood's merchants. Customers could just ring the doorbell of the apartment, where she lived above her business, if they needed to break a dollar.

"Her only form of entertainment was when she'd close the laundromat at 10:30 p.m., take a Greyhound up to Reno, Nevada, and throw quarters at the machines," said George Coffman, who owns the grocery next to the laundry and knew Ms. Wosser for years. "Then, she'd come back by 7 a.m. to open the laundry."

Ms. Wosser was married for a time and had a son. She was later divorced. In the mid-1980s her son died of AIDS, Mr. McCann said. Her love for the Episcopal Church came from the help the church gave to her son.

When her accountants told her to spend some money on advertising for tax write-offs, she decided to throw an annual Christmas raffle for her patrons instead.

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