In which I rescue a financial genius

February 26, 1996|By Thelma Alpert Blumberg

EVERYONE LOVES the story of Ann Scheiber, the reclusive financial genius who left $22 million to an educational institution for girls.

Magazine articles tell of her frugality, isolation from family and friends, and her obsession with the stock market. Supposedly, it all began when her superiors at the federal Internal Revenue Service denied her a promotion, way back in the Thirties.

Reportedly, she rarely purchased new clothing, and a well-worn black coat was her trademark for many decades. She was observed as a regular at stockbrokers' promotional meetings, where she always carried a paper bag in order to retrieve refreshments to take home. Her rent-controlled apartment displayed antique, peeling paint. She walked to the public library in order to study the Wall Street Journal, rather than ''waste'' her own money purchasing it.

Never a phone call

Saddest of all, it was believed that she may not have received a personal phone call for the last five years of her life.

As a therapist, I have been fantasizing that I could have straightened out her life, had she come to me for counseling when she retired at age 43. I know I would have prevented her from living as a poverty-stricken recluse, estranged from her large family.

I would have taught her to ''open up.'' She would have shared with me memories of her public-school days, when she was something of a loner but a hard worker, and always best in her class. Her mother warned her repeatedly, ''Ann, put your books away, or you will never marry!''

Despite her mother's pleas, she attended law school at night and passed the bar exam in 1926, a rare feat for any woman in those days. It all happened long before women's lib, and, most likely, it did decrease the likelihood of her ever marrying.

We would discuss her bitterness at the IRS for never promoting her, despite her superb record as an auditor. And, oh yes, she never did forgive her stockbroker nephew for leading her astray with a bad investment. There were numerous complaints, too, that her siblings ignored her.

Ann would have been an excellent client, never missing a counseling session. As her skills for expressing her feelings began to grow, we would have worked on restructuring her disabling thought processes.

We would have delved into reasons for her being overlooked at the IRS. Ann might have admitted that her aloofness, combined with her insistence upon perfection by her peers, may have been one of the reasons that she was overlooked.

Next, we would role-play forgiveness to her nephew, and open new avenues to the affection of her numerous relatives. With my encouragement, she could then extend invitations to other family members for meals and outings and give small gifts for the children's birthdays. As a young retiree with excellent financial skills, she would volunteer to teach budgeting courses for newlyweds at the local community center.

In the therapeutic situation, Ann's obsessive approach succeeds, as it does with everything else she tries. She is rewarded by becoming the darling of the family and is never left out of any gathering.

She makes numerous friends through her volunteer activities and is never alone. Although she harbors dreams of increasing her wealth through investing in the stock market, life is too full, and there is just no time for things like that.

Full of years and love

As Ann ages into her 90s she outlives her friends and siblings. Yet, there are nieces, nephews and their offspring who continue to love her. One of her favorite nieces takes her into her home, and it is there that she dies, surrounded by family, at age 101.

When she dies she takes with her a host of unmet fantasies: the dream of funding an educational institution for girls; of appearing on the cover of Money magazine. The gratitude of generations of female student beneficiaries of her will, the full-page newspaper ads thanking her for her generous deeds -- all were just imaginary. The stock-market success was just an illusion and there was no $22 million.

In Ann Scheiber's long life she never grasped the happiness she might have known. Neither did she see the happiness that her death made possible. For most human beings, illusion is reality. For her the choices of two realities both remained illusions.

Thelma Alpert Blumberg is a school psychologist with the Baltimore City Public Schools.

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