After 37 years, man's last will entangles gift of millions

Ruling: Because of a racial restriction in a 1962 bequest to Keswick nursing home, a judge finds that a doctor's fortune, now $28 million, must instead go to University Hospital.

November 11, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff

When Dr. Jesse C. Coggins wrote his final will in 1962, he promised his $2.3 million fortune would eventually go to the Keswick nursing home in Baltimore. He had just a few conditions: He wanted Keswick to use the money to build housing for patients, and he wanted it named after him.

Anticipating the money, Keswick went ahead and spent $11 million on its new Coggins Building. It even hung a portrait of its benefactor in the lobby.

But Keswick was unable to meet a third condition in the will: that the building be used only by whites. On Tuesday, that cost Keswick the Coggins fortune, now grown to $28 million. Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ruled that the money must go to the University of Maryland Medical Systems Center instead.

Coggins' will required that University Hospital get the money if Keswick found the terms unacceptable. In University's case, Coggins set no racial restrictions.

Unless Kaplan's ruling is overturned on appeal, the bequest will stand as the largest ever to University Hospital -- nearly triple the previous record of $10 million, donated in 1997 by Stewart and Marlene Greenebaum.

"We're very pleased to receive the gift," said University spokeswoman Joan S. Shnipper. "We'll make good use of the funds to help our patients."

But not just yet. Keswick plans an appeal.

"We believe the decision is legally wrong and morally wrong," said Keswick's attorney, Jack Morkan. Keswick "should not be penalized for its nondiscrimination."

Morkan argued that racial discrimination in hospitals was outlawed in 1964 and that, under Maryland law, Kaplan should have stricken the racial restrictions from Coggins' will rather than enforce an "illegal condition" and send the money to University.

Morkan said Keswick faces no financial crisis if it loses the $28 million gift. The Coggins Building was financed with "small gifts" and loans that have been paid off.

But with the cash, he said, "it would have greater wherewithal to make improvements to the Coggins facility."

The building is the largest on Keswick's property in the 700 block of W. 40th St. in Roland Park. Once primarily a nursing home, Keswick now provides long-term care, assisted living, adult day care and physical therapy.

Keswick has been racially integrated since 1967, Morkan said. Ironically, Coggins' widow, the late Helen Alexander Coggins, became a board member at Keswick after its integration. She was a patient there before her death in 1998, and bequeathed the bulk of her estate to the hospital.

No one close to the case was able to say much about Jesse Coggins' racial attitudes. He and his wife had no children, and his contemporaries are dead.

But he lived and worked at a time when virtually all hospitals and other public accommodations in Maryland were racially segregated. Those that did admit blacks generally relegated them to separate "colored" wards.

Coggins was 88 years old when he died in 1963. He was born just a decade after the end of the Civil War, and nearly his entire professional life was spent in the era of Jim Crow segregation in Maryland.

He graduated in 1896 from Baltimore's College of Physicians and Surgeons, which later merged into the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

In 1905, after nine years working at the racially segregated Spring Grove State Hospital, a psychiatric facility, Coggins opened his own hospital, the Laurel Sanitarium, in Prince George's County. It served alcoholic and mental patients until 1950, and geriatric women after that.

Coggins lived in Prince George's County and ran the sanitarium until his death, after which it was sold and razed. It almost certainly was segregated.

Shnipper said University Hospital did admit blacks in those days, but she could not say whether or how they might have been separated from whites.

Race was a late addition to Coggins' wills. In nearly a dozen wills he signed between 1944 and Nov. 23, 1962, Coggins stated that his estate should be placed in a trust for his wife and other family members and friends. After the last of them died, the trust was to be given to Keswick for the construction of housing for patients.

Coggins' only other condition then was that the building be named "the Coggins Building." (Coggins' ties to Keswick are unclear. He was never a board member there, and made no prior gifts. He is thought to have transferred patients there on occasion.)

On Dec. 27 -- just 34 days after signing an earlier will free of any racial reference -- Coggins had his attorney draft a new one. This final will included the racial restriction on Keswick's use of the money. It was also the first to state that University Hospital was to receive the money in the event Keswick found his terms "unacceptable." Coggins died a month later.

"It's impossible to know what was going through his mind," said Shale D. Stiller, the attorney hired by University Hospital. "But something happened in those 34 days."

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