Ex-teacher, Margaret Southern, lives modest life, leaves $8.4 million gift

12:05 AM, Jan 31, 2014   |    comments
Former teacher Margaret Southern lived frugally, invested wisely and doted on family, friends and her beloved dog Molly.(Photo: Mark Massingill, The Greenville (S.C.) News)
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(USA Today)--  Margaret Southern taught special-needs children, cared for her ailing brother for almost a decade and doted on her dachshund Molly.

She would stay up late into the night watching her beloved Atlanta Braves in her modest townhouse in the Glenbrooke neighborhood of Greenville, S.C.

It was a life of simplicity and privacy.

And so, it was with some surprise that when she died at 94 in October 2012, she had amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune and left $8.4 million of it to the Community Foundation of Greenville to benefit children and animals.

It is by far the largest donation the foundation has received, according to its president, Bob Morris.

According to the terms of Southern's trust, the Greenville Humane Society will get 50 percent of earnings and a Community Foundation panel will select the other recipients.

When the first grants are made next week, the Humane Society will get $200,000. Other Greenville non-profits -- Clarity, the Meyer Center and Project Hope Foundation, will each receive $50,000.

"What's exceptional is she didn't spend it on herself and she was able to accumulate a lot of money that she wanted to direct to her dearest charities," Morris said. "I haven't met a lot of people like that."

"It's a wonderful surprise to wake up and find a very unassuming woman who cares greatly for our community and its children," said Susan Shi, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Child Success, an advocacy group that works to improve services to children across the state. Both the institute and A Child's Haven will get $25,000.

Her early years

Born Margaret Linder in August 1918, Southern grew up in Sans Souci, S.C., the eldest of three children. After receiving her degree, from Greenville Women's College, she taught in Taylors, S.C., in a building that now houses Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

She married Charles Southern in June 1943. Great-nephew Bill Southern said his great-uncle Charles, an actuary, was particularly astute in business.

The couple moved to Des Moines, where Charles worked in insurance and Margaret worked as an elementary school teacher and later as a special-education teacher.

When he died in 1983, he left her a comfortable estate, said Mike Shain, senior vice president of UBS Wealth Management, who managed her investments.

She retired and moved back to Greenville in the mid-1980s. Her youngest brother, Boyce, moved in with her. He had been living in New York City, working as a designer at Macy's, but then was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Shain said.

She got her first dog, a dachshund she named Nancy.

Through the 1980s, Southern continued to invest. Blue chip stocks like 3M, General Foods, Heinz, the household names that pay dividends. She told Shain she wanted those checks to be able to buy whatever she wanted. She was known to write a check for a friend in need, Shain said.

Getting help

Shain first heard about Southern from a client. "We hit it off," he said. That was 1993, when she was 75, the same year her brother Boyce died.

She didn't turn over her entire portfolio at first, just a few deals to get started. Five or six years later, she called and said the investments were getting to be too much for her to handle.

She had one condition before she allowed Shain to handle everything. It was about her new dog, Molly, whom she got when Nancy died.

"If something happens to me, Molly has to come live with you, because I know you'll take care of her," Shain remembered her saying.

The first stock she bought was Abbott Laboratories, interesting, Shain said, because one of the company's main businesses is animal science and Molly was the center of Southern's world.

Southern kept the same 1980s model gray Cadillac for the rest of her life. She lived simply, her one indulgence taking friends out to eat. When her wealth reached a new threshold, Shain would take cookies and champagne over to celebrate.

"Now close the curtains," she'd say, "because my neighbors don't drink and I don't want to upset them."

Southern put her estate into a trust and in 2003 Morris said he learned she intended to name the Community Foundation as a beneficiary. She also left money to various relatives and caregivers. The total amount of her fortune was unavailable.

"She was most generous," Bill Southern said.

For the animals, for the people

The Community Foundation manages tax-deductible gifts and makes grants and donations -- almost $7 million in 2012 -- to various community organizations. It has been involved in just about every major civic project in Greenville, from downtown revitalization to helping establish the Metropolitan Arts Council and the Community Food Bank. Its list of endowments and funds is long, and with Southern's bequest, its assets are now at $54 million.

Kim Pitman, the executive director of the Greenville Humane Society, said the money from Southern's trust will enable the organization to pay off a $1 million loan it took out for a new facility.

"We are bursting at the seams," Pitman said. Last year, 5,200 animals were adopted and 11,000 spay and neuter operations performed. The organization also does outreach, taking animals to hospitals and schools to comfort patients and teach students about animal care.

Pitman said she had never met Southern.

"So sad that I did not," Pitman said. "She strikes me as a kind of person I would like - doesn't put on airs, smart, loves her animals."

Shain said, in fact, that Southern was devastated when Molly died a few years ago. She asked a woman who helped her around the house to bury her on her property.

When it came to her own death, Southern told Bill Southern, who had power of attorney over her affairs, that she did not want a funeral, a memorial or even a mention in the paper that she had died. She wanted to be cremated and buried with her brother Boyce and parents at Woodlawn Memorial Park.

She wanted no one there. She wanted to slip away as gently as she lived.

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