In Santa Monica, California, on June 10th, 1994, a group of friends and family gathered at a lawyer’s office to examine the last will of Thelma Pearl Howard, a 79-year-old woman who had passed away peacefully in a nursing home a few weeks prior. Despite leading a modest life outside her home, Thelma had an extraordinary job as Walt Disney’s maid for over three decades, caring for his two young daughters and managing his dietary needs.
While she received a modest salary for her services, the revelation that she had amassed a multi-million dollar stock portfolio and intended to donate half of her impressive wealth to charity came as a complete surprise. How did a humble cleaner with a fortune in the bank meet such a fate? This is a truly inspiring and motivational story.
Thelma Pearl Howard Background
Thelma Pearl Howard, born in June 1915 in Southwick, Idaho, had a humble upbringing as part of a struggling farming family. She was the second of five children and faced early hardships, with the loss of her mother at the age of six after giving birth to a sibling. Tragically, she experienced the untimely deaths of other siblings before reaching the age of 18. Thelma briefly pursued higher education in Spokane, Washington, but financial constraints forced her to leave before completing a full year of studies.
Seeking better opportunities, Thelma relocated to Los Angeles, where she took on multiple jobs to make ends meet. She worked as a part-time secretary, cleaned houses, and even served at a soda machine, demonstrating her determination to survive. In 1951, at the age of 36, Thelma’s lifelong dream became a reality when she secured a position as a live-in maid at Walt Disney’s grand estate in Holmby Hills, California.
The stark contrast between her modest origins and the opulence of the Disney property, boasting eight bedrooms, seventeen bathrooms, and sprawling across 3.6 acres, must have been a remarkable culture shock. The pool house alone was larger than her entire family home in Idaho. Thelma never could have imagined herself living in a house with features such as a putting green, tennis court, swimming pool, library, and fitness center.
Her Affection for Children
Finding a maid who could bond with his family was a challenge for Walt Disney until he met Thelma. While previous housekeepers struggled to get along with his young daughters, Thelma’s approach was entirely different. She not only became a skilled cook but also formed a deep connection with the girls. Unlike the strict rules set by the previous housekeeper, Thelma welcomed Diane and Sharon Disney into the kitchen, where she would prepare exquisite three-course dinners every week.
The girls would sit at the kitchen counter, marveling at the delicious meals Thelma effortlessly conjured. Aware of Walt’s fondness for hot dogs, a snack he enjoyed before dinner, Thelma made sure to always keep them stocked in the refrigerator, equivalent to three complete feasts. Thelma’s transformation from a mere maid to a kind and loving presence led her to be considered part of the Disney family. Walt even went as far as calling her “the real-life Mary Poppins” at one point.
In 1981, Thelma retired and lived a quiet life in a modest two-bedroom house for the next decade. However, declining health eventually led her to move into a nursing home of similar simplicity. Following her passing, a small group of friends and family gathered to hear the reading of her will. To their astonishment, the lawyer revealed that Thelma not only left half of her wealth to establish a philanthropic foundation but also designated the other half to her son, who had developmental disabilities and resided in a full-time care facility.
Over the next two decades, the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation donated millions of dollars to numerous nonprofit organizations. The foundation focused on supporting underprivileged children and promoting the arts, as Thelma believed in assisting children in need due to her own challenging upbringing.
An additional intriguing aspect unfolds. Had Thelma’s original shares remained unacquired and still held today, they could have grown from 193,000 to 579,000 shares due to a three-to-one split in June 1998. If this were the case, Thelma’s 579,000 shares would be worth a staggering $74.5 million at Disney’s recent highest closing price of $130! Not too shabby for a housekeeper from Idaho who was once considered inept.
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