Bette Wilson, 81, was rich, but no one knew this until she died last fall and left just over $2.5 million to the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley in Birmingham, Ala.
Wilson, affectionately known as the "hat lady," died on Nov. 20, 2012, according to an al.com report. It was later discovered that the woman, who everyone thought wasn't financially stable enough to afford a new microwave when the old one malfunctioned, had about $2.8 million in more than a dozen banking and investment accounts.
"She had $1.5 million in a Morgan Stanley investment account, and the rest spread out in other accounts up-to $250,000 each," noted al.com.
Wilson had worked as a credit manager for 40 years at Pure Oil Co., and before her husband made her a widow, he had worked for years as an airplane mechanic for Delta Airlines. Since 1953 until their deaths, the couple lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 850-square-foot house on 47th Street. They had no children.
In a report on the church's website billed "A Story of Surprises" the church details how Wilson decided she wanted to help the church with a camp building project, called Living River, after Sheppards and Lapsley officials campaigned at the Avondale Presbyterian Church where Wilson attended in 2007. Sheppards and Lapsley is the regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
"We were going from church to church in 2007 running campaigns, trying to build Living River," said Robert Hay, associate executive presbyter for nurture and staff to Living River. "Living River had not run a campaign in a small church so we decided to start with Avondale Presbyterian Church."
There were only about 18 to 20 elderly members attending the church at the time and Wilson was one of them. After the camp idea was pitched to Avondale the members came together and donated $25,000 to the project.
"Eighteen elderly people gave us $25,000 – we were surprised and thrilled!" said Hay.
Years later, after Avondale's membership had dwindled and they were unable to attract new members, the church decided to sell their building and donate the proceeds to the Living River project.
"So, this little bitty (now 16 member) church wound up giving us an additional $300,000," explained Hay. "Unbelievable surprise."
But the members of the Avondale church weren't done giving yet. The group went through the church's bank account and after they paid all their bills they had a surplus of $34,000 and they gave that to Living River as well.
And they thought that was the end of giving from that group. At the tail-end of that giving episode, however, Wilson approached Living River leadership and told them she wanted to put the organization in her will but they had no idea of the extent of her giving.
In the meantime, Living River officials were working hard to raise enough money to keep the project moving and church officials had no idea that the money they needed would come from Wilson.
After she died last November her lawyer contacted them in mid-January and informed them of her death. They expected they might benefit from the proceeds coming from the sale of her house and a car but they were shockingly surprised in August.
"Around August we get called back into the lawyer's office not thinking there was anything there. … She just didn't have any money," said Benga Harrison, director of development at Sheppards and Lapsley in an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday.
"The lawyer said, you're eventually gonna get this so we're just going to show you what it is. First thing they did was show us a Morgan Stanley account that had $1.5 million in it. And we just looked at each other and went, 'Oh my lance!'" said Harrison.
"This is almost just what the [Living River] board said basically we needed. We were ecstatic and she said 'Oh, we're not through. So she slipped another sheet of paper that had about 12 other accounts on it. And she said, this right here is probably not all but it adds up to $1.3 million and it's all yours. We just went 'huh?' I mean you could have picked us up off the table," she said.
After relevant fees were paid, the church ended up with 2.52 million and a check for the amount was delivered to church officials on Nov. 20, 2013, exactly one year after Wilson died.
According to Harrison, the only thing Wilson asked for in return was a plaque honoring the name of her parents, herself and her husband. The church is also thinking about other ways to honor the thrifty millionaire who loved hats.