Modesto resident Merv Kuhlman was frugal and not quick to part with a dollar. He also could be gruff and grouchy.
But when the retired accountant died last year at age 98, he left $82,000 each to the Modesto Gospel Mission and Haven Women's Center.
"It's amazing," said Vern Deatherage, the mission's executive director, about the financial windfall. "But it's happened to us before. We've had people give us estate checks."
The money could not come at a better time for Haven, which helps domestic violence and sexual assault victims and has reduced its staff from 45 to 25 since the start of the recession.
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Belinda Rolicheck, Haven's executive director, remembers thinking "that can't be right" after getting the first letter from Kuhlman's estate and calculating how much money Haven would receive.
"This kind of amount is very unusual for smaller nonprofits," she said. "We don't get people saying here's gobs and gobs of money."
Kuhlman left an estate of about $328,000 when he died March 17, 2009. The money was divided equally among Reed College in Portland, Ore.; Haven; the Gospel Mission; and Kuhlman's brother in Texas.
Each received a check for a little more than $82,000 in December.
Kuhlman and his wife, Anna, who died in 2006, did not have children. His brother, John, did not return calls seeking comment.
Rolicheck said no one at Haven knows of any connection with Kuhlman. But neighbor Debbie LaBarbera said she served with Anna Kuhlman on a philanthropic organization that helps women, and Haven was one of the group's beneficiaries.
Haven will use half of the $82,000 to pay off the mortgage for its women's and children's shelter, freeing $745 in monthly mortgage payments. Haven is deciding how to spend the balance of Kuhlman's gift.
The Kuhlmans were longtime donors to the Gospel Mission, Deatherage said. The money will pay for an additional staff member at the mission's children's center for several years, Deatherage added.
Kuhlman's connection to Reed College appears to be through his wife, who was born in Portland and was a University of Oregon graduate.
Kuhlman sold his house in late 2008 and spent his last months at Dale Commons and two other Modesto care facilities. In his will, Kuhlman asked to be cremated and have his ashes interred at the family plot in the small Nebraska town of Tecumseh, about 65 miles south of Omaha.
Eagle eye on projects, his change
Neighbors said Kuhlman retired from Campbell Soup Co. as an accountant. They described him as reserved, frugal and exacting. He would watch over a workman to make sure a job was done right or demand exact change to the penny if a neighbor picked up a fast food hamburger for him.
"He was one of a kind," said Wendy Sweeney, who knew Kuhlman for 15 years. "He didn't get along with all of his neighbors, but he got along with us. He was real particular. He had no problem telling you if he didn't approve of something. He was just straight out.
"My husband and I liked Merv. He got nicer as he got older. I think it's great he left all that money and it went to great causes."
Sweeney said he was a good neighbor and once spent two hours tracking her down by phone when the Sweeney family dog got loose.
Modesto attorney J. Wilmar Jensen of the father-and-son Modesto law firm Jensen & Jensen knew Kuhlman for more than three decades. Jensen's son Mark R. Jensen is the executor of Kuhlman's will.
He remembered Kuhlman as a quiet, meticulous man who took an interest in other people and the larger world.
"He was not a big spender, not a flashy guy," J. Wilmar Jensen said. "He just goes along and does what he's supposed to do, plugging along. In a law practice, you see all kinds of people. Whenever Mr. Kuhlman called, I was glad to talk with him."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2316.