Thelma Howard, Walt Disney's Maid, Received Shares Of Disney Stock Every Christmas
Thelma Howard with her son in a photo believed to be taken around 1941. Source: findagrave.com
For Thelma Howard, Walt Disney's housekeeper, stock in the Mickey Mouse operation was the gift that keeps on giving.
What does your boss give you for Christmas? A gift card? A couple of extra bucks? Getting anything for Christmas is nice, but some bosses go above and beyond - one of them being Walt Disney. The very first imagineer didn’t run his own house, instead he hired a woman that he referred to as “the real-life Mary Poppins,” Thelma Howard. She was such a treasured employee that Disney gave her stock in the company every year for Christmas and her birthday. By the time she passed away in 1994 her stocks were valued at $9 million; today that’s close to $22.5 million. Not bad for a housekeeper.
Howard’s Early Life Was Fraught With Pain
Born into an incredibly poor family in 1914, Thelma Howard’s mother passed away giving birth when the girl was only six-years-old, and when she was seven her sister burned to death in a freak accident. After growing up in Idaho Howard moved to Spokane, Washington to train as a stenographer, but she had to drop out of school because she couldn’t afford it. In 1931 she moved to Los Angeles where she took a series of low wage jobs before finding full time employment in 1951 as a live-in maid at Disney’s Holmby Hills estate. It didn’t take long for Howard to endear herself to Disney’s two children, Diane and Sharon who found that Howard actually treated them well rather than treating them as if they didn’t exist. Diane Disney Miller said:
The housekeeper before Thelma banished my sister and me from the kitchen. But when Thelma came, we spent all our time there. She could put on a full dinner with a roast and fresh pie and have kids drawing pictures at the kitchen table.
Howard Made Disney’s Home An Inviting Place
Before Howard worked in Walt Disney’s home it was just a house where people lived. Nobody hated living there but it was just a house. When Howard came on she turned the house into a warm household where people wanted to be. She didn’t just make Disney’s children feel welcome, but she made sure that Disney had everything he could want. She even kept his refrigerator stocked with hot dogs, his favorite after work snack. According to family legend, Disney came home every day and grabbed two hot dogs out of the fridge to enjoy cold, one for him and one for his dog Lady. For her service Disney gifted Howard with stock every year for Christmas and her birthday. She never sold one bit of stock, even after she retired.
After She Retired Howard Went Into A Nursing Home
Following her retirement Howard didn’t necessarily disappear, but her family lost track of her. Her niece, Cheryl Wallace, says that in 1991 Howard was hospitalized and her father received notice that someone was attempting to take over administrative duties for her estate. Wallace flew to Los Angeles where she found Howard wasting away in a nursing home. She told the LA Times:
I was aghast. She was always meticulous about her appearance, and there she was, she hadn’t been bathed, her hair hadn’t been brushed, she was in a ward with another woman and two men.
A man claiming to be Howard’s husband placed her in the rundown nursing home and said that she didn’t have any family (she had a son, brother, nieces, and nephews) essentially as a ruse to gain control of her Disney stocks. Wallace discovered that Howard and the man were in a relationship but never married. At the end of the day a $24,000 settlement was decided on for the man and that was that.
As Wallace was looking into Howard, Diane Disney Miller was also checking up on the health of her former housekeeper. When she found Howard living in the decrepit nursing home she moved Howard to a home where she had a private room and a garden that she could visit.
When She Passed Away She Was A Millionaire
Howard passed away in June of 1994 in the new nursing home, after her will was read her family was shocked to discover that three decades of work in the Disney household helped her amass a fortune of $9.5 million in stocks from the company. This is like someone hiding a pirate’s chest full of gold doubloons under the bed for their entire life and not telling a soul. It’s clear from Howard’s refusal to live large on her stocks that she was both frugal (she was a child of the Depression after all), and that she deeply loved working for Walt Disney. It’s likely that she wanted to hold onto her time with the family she spent 30 years with as long as possible.
Howard Left Most Of The Money To An Arts Program
When Howard’s will was read and her family realized that she was a secret millionaire there was another surprise in store. The wealthy housekeeper smartly separated her funds in order to make sure that her family received some money, that most of it would go to people who really needed it. Howard set up the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation in order to support programs in the arts for underprivileged children from pre-school age to eight grade. Her niece said:
There had been so much pain and tragedy in my aunt’s life, I think she felt she missed being young. She wanted to give something back to children.
Tags: Christmas | Disney | Thelma Howard | Walt Disney
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