Reclusive woman's $2 million gift leaves friends, colleges dumbfounded - The Buffalo News

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Reclusive woman's $2 million gift leaves friends, colleges dumbfounded

In life, Ruth J. Schwendler kept a low profile and enjoyed simple pleasures.

She earned a modest wage for many years as a secretary and bookkeeper. She sometimes played bridge with a small group of friends, and she relished tending to the gardens around her tidy Eggertsville home.

So no one could have predicted the grand statement she made in death. Schwendler left behind more than $2 million when she died last May at age 92. Most of the money was set aside for scholarships at Canisius College and D'Youville College.

"I was dumbfounded when I saw what she had just gradually, slowly accumulated," said Dolores Hufnagel, a longtime friend of Schwendler's and the executor of her will.

What's also unusual about the gifts is that Schwendler had little personal involvement with either institution. She did not attend Canisius or D'Youville and had no prior history of giving to the colleges.

"We get gifts all the time unexpectedly," said William M. Collins, vice president for institutional advancement at Canisius. "In this case, this is an unusually large gift from someone who didn't appear to have a direct connection to the college."

"We couldn't go into our database and find out anything about her because she wasn't in it," Collins added.

Hufnagel  has known Schwendler since they grew up together on the East Side. Hufnagel's sister, Dorothy, and Schwendler were classmates at the former St. Mary of Sorrows School on Genesee Street.

Schwendler, an only child, also attended Mount St. Joseph Academy. She never married and did not have children. She worked in insurance offices and lived for many years in a small house on Layton Street that her parents originally purchased in the 1950s. The house sold in November for $105,000.

Schwendler lived frugally, and she "believed in savings bonds," Hufnagel said.

"She didn't spend money. She didn't go traveling. She was a homebody."

Intensely private and independent, Schwendler mostly kept to herself, revealing only sparing details about her life even to those she considered close friends.

"She didn't open up to anybody," said Hufnagel.

The task of executing Schwendler's estate fell to Hufnagel after her sister died.

"She just told me, 'My will is in my safety deposit box,' " Hufnagel recalled.

Schwendler fell and broke her hip while cleaning bird droppings off a window. She survived surgery to repair the hip but died a couple days later, May 8.

What appears to be Schwendler's most significant attachment to the colleges is through her cousin, Francis J. Walter, who taught history at Canisius for 44 years. Like Schwendler, Walter did not have children or siblings, and when he died in 2002, he left to Schwendler in his will "a couple hundred thousand" dollars, according to Schwendler's estate attorney, Edward J. Schwendler, a distant relative who was a classmate of Walter at Canisius.

Edward Schwendler said that Walter might have had some personal connection with D'Youville, too, but college officials said they have not found any records or anyone at D'Youville who remembers Walter.

Schwendler's gift "was a huge surprise," said Aimee Pearson, director of annual giving at D'Youville. "She really didn't have a connection. We kind of had to dig to find out who she was."

Schwendler also gave money to five friends. Her will stipulates that the colleges split about $2 million, with two-thirds going to Canisius and a third to D'Youville. According to the will, Schwendler made the gifts in honor of her parents, Henry and Clara. The only restriction was that the colleges use the funds to provide scholarships to students "who would be judged otherwise unable to afford the cost."

Both colleges set up endowed scholarship funds for that purpose.

At Canisius, the new Ruth J. Schwendler Scholarship in Memory of Henry and Clara Schwendler will provide as much as $50,000 per year in financial aid to students. The Schwendler gift accounted for nearly a quarter of the total endowment giving Canisius receives from donors in a typical year.

"In the fundraising world we refer to this as the bluebird, the bluebird of happiness. So we were absolutely thrilled," said Collins. "This is certainly a great boost for us. This really helps us to make Canisius affordable to as many students as possible."

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