On June 10, 1994, a group of friends and family gathered at a law firm in Santa Monica, California, to read the last will of 79-year-old Thelma Pearl Howard. Thelma died quietly in a nursing home a few weeks earlier, just 16 days before her 80th birthday. From the outside, Thelma Howard has lived a very modest life. Her most notable achievement was working as Walt Disney’s personal housekeeper for over thirty years. She cooked all of Walt’s meals and helped raise his two young daughters. For this service she was paid a modest annual salary, perhaps slightly more than the average housekeeper because her boss was so rich and famous. So you can imagine the total shock when Thelma’s attorney announced that she had in fact checked a several million dollars stock portfolio and left half of his impressive net worth to charity. How did a simple cleaning lady end up dying with millions of dollars in the bank? The story is truly heartwarming and inspiring.
Thelma Pearl Howard was born in June 1915 to a very poor farming family in Southwick, Idaho. Thelma was the second of five children. Her childhood was filled with pain from the age of six when her mother tragically passed away in childbirth. Two other siblings died unexpectedly before they turned 18. Thelma briefly moved to Spokane, Washington to attend college, but was forced to drop out before completing a full year of class because she could no longer afford tuition. After Spokane, Thelma moved to Los Angeles where she held three jobs to make ends meet. She served drinks from a soda fountain, cleaned houses, and worked part-time as a secretary.
In 1951, at the age of 36, Thelma landed a dream job when she was hired as a housekeeper at Walt Disney’s sprawling estate in Holmby Hills, California. One can only imagine the culture shock she must have felt coming from those humble beginnings, then moving into an 8 bedroom, 17 bathroom mansion, a 3.6 acre mansion listed in October 2012 for $ 90 million. The Disney mansion pool house was larger than his family’s entire Idaho house. Needless to say, Thelma never dreamed of living in a house that included a putting green, tennis court, swimming pool, library, gym, and more.
Until Thelma, Walt Disney couldn’t find a maid who clicked with her family. The former housekeeper was a good cook but did not get along with her two young daughters. In fact, the tensions were so high that the former housekeeper actually banned the children from setting foot in the kitchen. She also forced the girls to stay in their rooms while she cleaned the house. Thelma was exactly the opposite. She adored the two young girls and loved having their company while making amazing three course dinners every night. While Thelma cooked, Diane and Sharon Disney would sit at the kitchen counter and marvel at the meals that were magically whipped together. In addition to the three party dishes, Thelma knew to keep the fridge stocked with Walt’s favorite snacks, hot dogs, which he had apparently trod down every night before dinner. Unlike their former housekeeper, Thelma was warm and loving and eventually became part of the Disney family. Walt even went so far as to describe Thelma as “real life Mary Poppins“.
In the thirty years that Thelma worked for the Disney family, she was paid a little more than the average housekeeper’s salary. She also received free room and board, which paid her a long way, but would never make her “rich”. On the other hand, working for Walt Disney gave Thelma a very unique advantage. Every Christmas and every birthday, Walt gave bonus shares of Disney’s Thelma away. As the Disney Empire grew, the number of shares it received increased. Because Thelma respected Walt so much, she never sold a single slice in her life and even used some of her own money to buy more.
Over the years, Thelma’s stock portfolio has slowly swelled. A few shares became a hundred. One hundred has become a thousand. A thousand has become ten thousand and so on. When Thelma started receiving the shares, owning Disney shares was not particularly exciting. Then, between 1945 and 1965, the company exploded into the cultural phenomenon that the world knows and loves today. Disneyland opened in July 1955 and was an immediate success. Then, Disney Studios embarked on a creative tear by producing a series of classic films like “Lady and the Tramp” (1955), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961) and ” Mary Poppins “(1964). Mary Poppins made $ 30 million at the box office, more than any other movie in 1964, and with reissues, she would earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $ 375 million. As the company grew, so did its share price. Through these annual donations and a number of stock splits, by the time of Thelma’s death in 1994, she had amassed an astonishing 193,000 shares from Disney, which at the time were worth $ 9.5 million!
Thelma retired in 1981 and spent the next decade living a quiet life in a humble two-bedroom bungalow until her failing health forced her to move into an equally modest nursing home. After his death, a small group of friends and family were called in to hear his will read. Those in attendance couldn’t believe their ears when the lawyer explained that not only did Thelma die a multimillionaire, but that she devoted half of her fortune to setting up a charitable foundation. Thelma left the other half to her adult son who had a developmental disability and lived in a full-time care facility in Long Beach. Over the next 20 years, the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation donates millions of dollars to dozens of charities. His foundation is particularly active in supporting charities that focus on underprivileged children and arts education. Having had a difficult childhood herself, Thelma thought it especially important that she do her part to help other at-risk children.
And there is one last mystery. If Thelma’s original shares had never been sold and were still held in trust today, they would have tripled from 193,000 shares to 579,000 thanks to a 3-1 split in June 1998. If this scenario holds true, at Disney’s most recent closing price of $ 64, Thelma’s 579,000 shares would be worth staggering. $ 37 million today! Not bad for a poor Idaho housekeeper.