2008-05-09

Success Stories: Elementary School Teacher Becomes Multimillionaire Through Saving and Investing

Silicon Valley Blogger’s post, Serious Savers Who Died Very Wealthy, at The Digerati Life, tipped me off to the story of Roberta Langtry—an elementary school teacher who accumulated millions in wealth—and donated much of it to charity and other causes anonymously up until (and upon) her death in 2005.

The short version of her story made me want to learn more, so I started digging. I found a Wikipedia entry on Langtry, what appears to be a news article on Langtry reprinted at the CharityFocus.org blog (which also appears to be accessible at the Globe and Mail newspaper website for a fee), a post on Langtry on the Families.com blog, and a note on Langtry at the Nature Conservancy of Canada website. And here’s what I’ve pieced together.

Langtry was born in 1916 in Manitoba and passed away in 2005, at age 89. She served as an elementary school teacher and speech therapist in Toronto for over 55 years—having started teaching at age 16. She is described variously as “unassuming” and “modestly paid,” with some commentary noting that Toronto public-school teachers were not particularly well paid.

She made headlines when she bequeathed $4.3 million (Canadian) (approximately $3.8 million (U.S.)) to charity, namely, the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It was the largest bequest ever to the Conservancy (established 1962)—and the largest bequest ever to the cause of conservation in Canada. Even in her death, Langtry held true to the role of “unassuming.” It sounds like her identity was not disclosed at the time of her gift—though the executor of her estate revealed her some months later.

Langtry’s net worth has not been disclosed, but her will apparently included several other sizeable gifts to charity apart from the Conservancy—making clear her net worth exceeded the $3.8 million (U.S.) amount of the Conservancy bequest.

So by age 89, Langtry’s net worth exceeded $3.8 million (U.S.).

How was she doing along the way? It looks like Langtry may have first sought professional investment counsel in 1973—at the age of 57. Retaining a gentleman named Robert Borden, she turned over $500,000 to him to manage. In 1973, the Canadian-U.S. exchange rate ranged from 0.9984 to 1.0039 (Source: Economagic). So we can roughly equate her $500,000 (Canadian) to $500,000 (U.S.). If you then try to translate that to 2007 U.S. dollars (using the Measuring Worth relative-value calculator, and using consumer price index as a reference point), that’s about $2,332,305.96 (U.S.).

So by age 57, Langtry’s net worth probably already exceeded the equivalent of $2.3 million (U.S.).

How the heck did she do it? Much is left to extrapolation and speculation—but a few high-level concepts were revealed by Borden. And the two themes that come up are: frugality and good investments.

Borden described Langtry as “incredibly frugal.” Not many specific examples were given, but she lived in a modest one-story home in East Toronto; and apparently, Borden had a hard time persuading her part with a 15-year-old Volvo in the mid-1990s.

Her investments shone with some skill and perhaps some luck:

  • Langtry’s big pay-off looks like it came from her “prescient” purchase of IBM stock in the 1940s or 1950s—stock which she likely held for well over 50 years (as she still had it at the time of her death).
  • Other than IBM, however, Borden had Langtry put most of her money into “safe bond investments and solid Canadian blue-chip stocks, such as those of the banks and insurance companies, that appreciated nicely over the decades.”
  • Langtry was interested in higher-risk investments, especially where they meshed with her anti-pollution/conservation interests. But Borden limited her investments in these to “a conservative 10 per cent of her portfolio.”
  • It is possible that Langtry had a modest side income. She apparently developed some puzzle-based educational games that were sold in the U.S.; and in 1960, she co-authored a teacher’s guide that was published.

There are lots of questions and gaps. But in a lot of ways, Langtry was many personal-finance bloggers’ and pundits’ dream child. She didn’t have much of a salary. She was entrepreneurial and may have developed some side income. She was frugal. Her investments followed a very, very long-term buy-and-hold strategy, primarily in conservative investments and apparently at least somewhat diversified. And though she made some riskier picks, including individual stocks (possibly some younger or start-up companies in anti-polllution or conservation fields), they were mostly limited to 10% of her portfolio.

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