98-year-old secret millionaire gives fortune to Audubon for wildlife refuge

Gremel
Screen capture Chicago Tribune

Russ Gremel spent $1,000 on Walgreens stock 70 years ago, now he’s giving $2 million dollars to Mother Nature.

In a culture dedicated to the acquisition, display, and both coveting and squandering of money, it's always wildly refreshing to come across people who defy the norm. And even better when they defy the norm in ways bursting with beautiful, altruistic generosity. Case in point: A 98-year-old Chicago man by the name of Russ Gremel.

Seventy years ago Russ Gremel plunked down $1,000 to buy stock in a Chicago-based pharmacy chain, inspired by his brother's observation that people would always need medicine and women would always buy makeup.

The pharmacy chain was Walgreen's, and Gremel's $1,000 turned into $2 million. He never cashed out, he never moved out of the humble brick bungalow where he has lived since he was 4 years old. He was, quite simply, never seduced by the lure of things money could buy.

As the Chicago Tribune reports, Gremel opts for oats and stew over "fancy foods." His last car was an ancient Dodge Omni. "I'm a very simple man," Gremel told the Tribune. "I never let anybody know I had that kind of money."

But now the cat's out of the bag: The now-not-so-secret millionaire is making headlines with his extraordinary donation of the stock to the Illinois Audubon Society, which is using it to help establish a 395-acre wildlife refuge in Lee County. The society had been yearning to purchase the property, and were able to buy it last year for $2.1 million using money from Gremel's shares along with a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, as well as cash from its own land acquisition fund.

Which means the society hasn't liquidated all of the Walgreens shares, says Jim Herkert, its executive director, potentially signalling the opportunity for further growth of the funds.

"It's incredibly generous," Herkert says of the donation. "It's allowing us to protect a really valuable and important piece of property and fulfill one of Russ' wishes that we could find a place where people could come out and experience and enjoy nature the way he did as a kid."

And how lovely that Gremel is able to enjoy the fruits of his generosity by giving the gift while he is still alive.

"Why not give it to them now," he says, "when I have the pleasure and enjoyment of seeing it."

The sanctuary was dedicated last week, the refuge is called the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary, a Legacy Project of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. It will remain a safe haven for over 170 species of birds as well as relatively rare turtles, and many other creatures. It's a chance for people to see what parts of Illinois looked like before most of the people arrived, Herkert says. Which is a good thing, and Gremel agrees.

"You have to do some good in this world," Gremel said. "That's what money is for."

The Chicago Tribune was a wonderful video of Gremel discussing his life and the sanctuary, which you can see here.

Tags: Animals | Chicago | Conservation | Nature

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