Nearly 70 years ago, a young Russ Gremel decided to buy about $1,000 worth of stock in a Chicago-based pharmacy chain.
He figured people would always need medicine and women would always buy makeup. He planned to hold onto that stock for a long time, as an investment.
As Gremel grew older, that pharmacy chain, Walgreens, grew exponentially. By the time Gremel hit his late 90s, the stock was worth more than $2 million.
Still, he didn’t cash out. Instead, the now 98-year-old Chicagoan donated the stock to the Illinois Audubon Society, which is using it to help establish a nearly 400-acre wildlife refuge near Dixon and Amboy that will be dedicated in his name Sunday.
Gremel, who’s lived in the same Jefferson Park brick bungalow for nearly 95 years, said he didn’t need the money for himself.
“I’m a very simple man,” said Gremel as he smoked a pipe on his front porch Thursday, waving and smiling at the occasional neighbor. “I never let anybody know I had that kind of money.”
Gremel prefers oatmeal and stew to “fancy foods.” His last car was a more than 25-year-old Dodge Omni. He never had a wife or children to support.
Nor did he ever have a mortgage. He settled into his current home at the age of 4 with his mother, father and siblings. The lamp lighters and horses of his childhood are long gone, but otherwise, he said, “it’s still the same quiet street.”
Though he never discussed his wealth, those who know Gremel say his donation isn’t surprising.
He’s a man with a “big, open heart,” said Jack Henehan, one of the many men who was a Boy Scout during Gremel’s more than 60 years as a scoutmaster.
“Every single person who knows him from the troop knows that,” said Henehan as he dropped off a gallon of milk for Gremel on his way to work. Henehan, 20, takes Gremel grocery shopping once a week and runs occasional errands for him. He promised to pick up some vanilla ice cream for Gremel on his next trip to the store.
“Get me the big tub, will you?” Gremel asked as Henehan departed for work.
Another former Scout turned lifelong friend, Dr. Steven Bujewski, 57, said the stock donation is nice, but not as impressive as the time Gremel spent leading his Boy Scouts.
“The gift that he has given to thousands of kids through Scouting and the influence it’s had on their lives, I think that’s 100 times more valuable,” Bujewski said.
Though Scouting was a big part of his life, Gremel said he chose to donate to the Illinois Audubon Society because of its relatively low administrative overhead and his love of nature.
Gremel spent a lot of time hiking and camping as a younger man. Though he doesn’t get around much anymore — walking slowly with two canes — he wandered the country as a teen.
At 19, he set out to see the west, hopping trains, hitchhiking and even trekking through Yellowstone National Park in the snow.
His travels didn’t end there.
He served on Kauai, Hawaii, and on the island of Tinian as an Army lieutenant during World War II. During the Korean War he served in Washington, D.C., where there were 10 girls for every man, he said laughing, his light blue eyes sparkling.
He graduated from Northwestern University’s law school between wars and went on to practice what he calls “Abraham Lincoln law” — a hodgepodge of everything.
But Gremel knew, even as a young man, that he didn’t want to live a traditional life. He didn’t want to work into his old age. He saved up, cut his standard of living and retired at the age of 45.
He told himself, “You’re not going to die at 70 years of age and say, ‘what if?'”
His retirement has lasted much longer than he anticipated. But he’s filled his time by mentoring Scouts, hiking, watching baseball games and reading. He read “War and Peace” — three times.
He watched his Walgreens stock grow in value, but he didn’t give much thought to cashing out. He had everything he needed. Plus, he had watched his father, a stove salesman, play the stocks before the stock market crash of 1929.
“We went from comparable wealth to abject poverty in 24 hours,” Gremel recalled. “We had no money. There were no food stamps. There was nothing except your friends and neighbors.
“Everyone on the street shared food.”
His father was a speculator, he said. Gremel was determined to be an investor.
But as he aged into his late 90s, Gremel thought he should do something with the money. He decided there was no point in waiting until he died to give the money away.
He thought, “Why not give it to them now, when … I have the pleasure and enjoyment of seeing it.”
He approached the Illinois Audubon Society two summers ago. The society had been keeping an eye on a 395-acre property near Amboy and Dixon for some time, and Gremel said he wanted the money to be used to help people enjoy nature. It proved to be a good fit.
Gremel donated his Walgreens shares to the society last year, and the group bought the property for $2.1 million in December from Augustana College. The society bought it partly with money from Gremel’s shares, partly with a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and partly with cash from its own land acquisition fund.
The society hasn’t yet liquidated all of the Walgreens shares it received from Gremel, said Jim Herkert, its executive director.
“It’s incredibly generous,” Herkert said 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.”
On Sunday, Gremel and some of his former Boy Scouts will trek to the property for the dedication of what the Illinois Audubon Society is calling the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary: a Legacy Project of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The area is home to more than 170 species of birds as well as relatively rare turtles, among other animals. It’s a chance for people to see what parts of Illinois looked like before most of the people arrived, Herkert said.
Gremel is looking forward to the dedication, though he doesn’t plan to give a speech or draw attention to himself. As he sees it, he didn’t earn the money anyway. All he did was hold a stock, he said.
“You have to do some good in this world,” Gremel said. “That’s what money is for.”
Besides, he said, he’s already had a “hell of a good life” without it.
Source: Chicago Tribune