Alum gives everything to Juniata -- cat, car, cash
May 25, 2008 4:00 AM
Gary M. Baranec for the Post-Gazette
Kim Kitchen, director of planned giving at Juniata College, sorts through some of the personal items from the estate of Larry Johnson.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Dr. Larry Johnson made no secret that upon his death, he would give his alma mater, Juniata College, enough money to create full-ride scholarships.
What was not as clear was what else he planned to leave behind -- a refrigerator with food, a .38 caliber Harrington and Richardson handgun and a native America purse made from dried buffalo scrotum.
There was plenty more, too. That's because Dr. Johnson, 68, a California radiologist who never married, didn't simply write his school a check. He gave Juniata virtually his entire life, from a sandstone-colored Lexus and meticulously cataloged music collection to his beloved cat Princess.
Suddenly, a school with 1,460 students found itself the owner of items as prized as a $1.3 million condo overlooking California's Monterey Bay and as odd as toilet paper purchased in bulk.
The school clearly is grateful for its largest ever estate gift, which among other things, will enable needy high school graduates from Dr. Johnson's native Somerset to attend Juniata. But the donation also has put the college in the delicate spot of deciding what parts of a man's life to keep and what parts to sell or simply give away.
Such gifts are made to colleges from time to time when a donor decides that affinity for school trumps all else.
"It was a little sad," said Kim Kitchen, Juniata's director of planned giving, recalling how she inventoried items in the two-bedroom condo where Dr. Johnson died of an apparent heart attack last July.
"We knew Larry, but he really didn't open up his personal side," she said. "It felt a bit like I was walking into the most personal aspects of his life. Everything had been left as it was the moment he died."
Before packing up the man's Lexus for the drive back to Pennsylvania, she found a home for Princess with a neighbor, cleaned out the refrigerator and stood on a boat beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and helped spread his ashes over San Francisco Bay.
"By his gift, Larry was elevating us up to the level of family," she said. "I thought it was important for me to be there."
The donation, worth an estimated $6.5 million, includes not only the man's tangible personal property but also his retirement assets and investment accounts.
Thanks for the dinosaur dung
It is an extreme form of estate-giving. And it illustrates how campus fundraisers must be ready to consider generosity that can come in almost any form.
What, for instance, should a college do when offered a pet cemetery?
George Washington University confronted that question when a donor offered it a canine resting place whose occupants included J. Edgar Hoover's dog. After weighing the offer, the university declined, according to the Washington D.C.-based Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a group representing advancement professionals that keeps a list of unusual gifts made to colleges.
Some donations have obvious value, like a 4,700-acre Wyoming ranch rich in fossil deposits that has become a learning site for University of Pittsburgh students. Or a 57-acre Italian estate donated to New York University that, when combined with a Renaissance art collection and cash, was believed to be worth at least $250 million, the organization said.
Other gifts on the list require a bit more explanation. Chandler-Gilbert Community College's foundation received 770 pounds of petrified dinosaur dung. The college in Chandler, Ariz., was expected to display it on landscaped paths and use it to seek clues about the prehistoric creatures' dietary habits.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave Atlanta's Oglethorpe University a dead elephant. It was used to teach anatomy until it rotted. Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. took in more than two tons of Morton salt from the company.
Washington & Jefferson College is the proud owner of a door lock, and no ordinary one at that. It's from the set of "Gone with the Wind" and was donated in 1940 by David O. Selznick, a Pittsburgh native and one of the film's producers.
The man who gave Juniata almost everything started out with practically nothing.
Born in 1939, Larry Johnson grew up poor, the younger of two sons whose father abandoned the family before Larry was old enough to speak, said Gabriel Welsch, a Juniata administrator who researched the man's life. Dr. Johnson's mother, Mary Ellen Johnson, put her sons in an orphanage while she trained to be a nurse, then reclaimed them as she went to work for what was then known as Somerset Community Hospital.
In high school, Dr. Johnson excelled academically, was a standout basketball player and served as class president, said Jerry Lowry, 68, a classmate at Somerset now living in Penn Hills. But college would have been beyond Dr. Johnson's reach were it not for a scholarship from Juniata.
A member of the college's Class of 1961, he never forgot the favor.
"This was an important place to Larry," said Juniata President Thomas R. Kepple Jr. "This was a guy who I think valued the education he got and wanted others to have the same experience."
So his will stipulated that $1.5 million be used to establish, in perpetuity, a four-year scholarship for tuition, room and board ($38,700 a year) for a Juniata student from Somerset Area High School who shows financial need, ability in natural sciences and leadership potential. Another $1.5 million will endow a scholarship to send a Juniata graduate to the University of Rochester school of medicine and dentistry, the institution where Dr. Johnson got his medical degree.
Income from the sale of tangible property can be used as Juniata sees fit. Leftover assets, including proceeds from selling the house, must go to a freshman scholarship fund named for one of Dr. Johnson's biology professors.
Dr. Johnson never came back to the campus that will now benefit from his largesse. He disliked being the center of attention.
He was discovered by authorities in his home after failing to show up for the 50th reunion of his high school class.
An avid traveler and collector of Native American and Southwest art, he worked in several states including Arizona, where he once served as a physician on a Navajo reservation. He kept few close friends, said the college, and almost never showed up in his own photos brought back home from trips he'd made alone. A digital camera purchased a week before his death had only images of his cat.
Hyper-organized, his car trunk contained not just flares and a blanket but a cheat sheet that detailed and ranked menus of restaurants he frequented during long trips. Even the campus library staff was impressed with how he cataloged the 1,500 music CDs that will increase the library's collection by three-fold.
"There's more than just classical here," marveled circulation supervisor Lynn Jones as she lugged one of several bulky binders crammed with photocopied CD covers arranged alphabetically and tabbed.
"There's John Denver, music from TV shows, K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Look, here's Elvis," she said. "The man was quite a collector."
And not just of music.
Boxloads of pottery, paintings and imitation Navajo blankets -- items whose worth ranged from $10,000 to almost nothing -- were sold off or will adorn campus buildings including Juniata's historic Founders Hall, a red brick administration building dating to 1879 that is being gutted and restored. His handgun, a flatscreen TV and most of his household furnishings were sold in California, while his wardrobe and groceries went to a homeless shelter there.
The most enduring part of his gift to the campus will be the scholarship and the faces it brings to campus year after year. "These are students who otherwise probably couldn't afford Juniata or most other places," said Dr. Kepple.
"Forever," he added, smiling at the thought. "What a remarkable gift."