It was the greatest feel-good story of last December’s giving season.
Loren Krueger was a 94-year-old retired farmer, a World War II vet and, according to friends and neighbors in the small town of LeRoy, Minn. (population 925), he was also notoriously frugal. Twice-widowed, Krueger had lost his teenaged son to cancer and lived alone for decades in a modest white clapboard house on Main Street, where he faithfully attended mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic church and stopped in twice-monthly at the senior citizens’ center for dinner. By most accounts, he led a quiet life. But he caused quite a stir after he was gone, when he left $3 million to the town of LeRoy.
By the time December rolled around, the story had hit the airwaves. Reporter Jim Spencer from The Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul traveled to LeRoy for the scoop, which Minneapolis television station KARE picked up shortly thereafter. The KARE story on Krueger kicked off a special giving-season report on The Nightly News with Brian Williams. Soon, the story of Loren Krueger’s gift to LeRoy was everywhere; even the National Enquirer got in touch.
But what made Krueger’s story so moving was not just the gift he gave – it was how LeRoy citizens paid it forward. From Krueger’s standpoint, the disbursement was simple: the estate was divided into 14 shares, with a certain number of shares going to each of the community institutions he chose to support. His own church got five shares (about $1 million), but in an ecumenical turn, he left more than $400,000 each to Bethany Bible Church, the LeRoy Evangelical Lutheran Church and the First Presbyterian Church, whose leaky roof was in desperate need of a cash infusion. The senior center, the ambulance company and the fire department each got one of the remaining three shares (worth about $220,000 apiece).
Parishioners at St. Patrick’s tithed 10 percent of their gift to good works – from developing a college trust fund for Minnesota children to building homes for poverty-stricken Hondurans. The senior center teamed up with the churches to help pay for a new kitchen at the retirement center where Krueger spent his last years, and it also wrote a $10,000 check to Grace Christian Church – the only church in town dedicated after Krueger wrote his will. “We were operating on $600 a month before,” says Eileen Evans, president of the senior center and a writer for The LeRoy Independent. “That’s a lot of money for us, and we wanted to keep the money in LeRoy.” So they wrote a check toward a new school playground, teamed up with the Lutheran church to fix the town swimming pool, and are now working with the city to make improvements to the community center.
But like Krueger’s bequest, the story of LeRoy seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. Roughly the same time LeRoy residents were getting their final disbursements, 91-year-old LeRoy resident Merrill Chesebrough passed away – leaving the bulk of his estimated $3.5 million estate to the town, a gift that residents just started finding out about last week.
“These are two people you wouldn’t have picked out for acts like this,” Evans said. “They didn’t have any relationship to each other, and their wills were made out completely separately. They were both just single men without families, who appreciated the community.”
As for the Chesebrough estate, much of the money goes into a trust fund, with the interest divided among local organizations. The Presbyterian church will get 20 percent, the schools will receive 35 percent for scholarships, and 35 percent will go into the LeRoy Foundation – to which local organizations can apply for project funding.
Meanwhile, Evans says, “I have to laugh because I can’t get a word in edgewise around here anymore. Getting involved with all these projects is so good for our older people. It’s getting them out and involved and visiting.”
Meanwhile, the Krueger money has trickled down to some seemingly small activities, which have had a wonderful effect on the LeRoy community. Bingo nights at the senior center are free; the $5 pot is paid in “LeRoy Bucks” – real money that comes with an honor system commitment that it will get spent in town. The senior center’s dinners, catered by the bowling alley-restaurant Travel Lanes, now serve a $4, all-you-can-eat dinner four times a month, up from two, and some dinners are open to anyone.
“It’s cool when you find out that the money these organizations have to spend now has made such a large impact,” says LeRoy mayor Kathy Farlinger.
The city’s official slogan is “A small town that lives big!” Has it since taken on greater significance for the town of LeRoy? Farlinger laughs, “I think you could probably say that.”