Sometime in 2011, Jan Stayianos noticed an older woman with a walker sitting in the pew that Mrs. Stayianos occupied regularly at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Allison Park.
The woman showed up sporadically at the church and the two barely talked until the following year when Mrs. Stayianos encouraged Lydia Meshanko to join her and several friends at a meal in the church social hall following services. After Mrs. Meshanko sent a thank-you note for including her at the event, they struck up a friendship.
In the summer of 2012, Mrs. Stayianos of Highland Park began to run some errands for Mrs. Meshanko, who had no children or close relatives to help manage her needs. Her husband, Peter Meshanko, had died in 1980.
Mrs. Stayianos soon became aware that though the elderly widow resided in a modest one-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch house in O'Hara crammed with files, paperwork and her own artwork, she had accumulated an estate valued at $4 million -- and she was determined to give most of it away to be used for scholarships.
"She was bent over ... and wore braces to hold her legs up. But she was smart and sharp as a tack and knew she wanted that money to go for education," Mrs. Stayianos recalled.
Only months before she died in September 2012 at age 92, Mrs. Meshanko finalized her will and stipulated that the bulk of her holdings go to a scholarship fund administered by the Pittsburgh Foundation.
Specifically, the money will be used for scholarships for art students at Community College of Allegheny County; for students enrolled at two Orthodox Christian seminaries: St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Wayne County; and for graduates of Mrs. Meshanko's alma mater, Springdale High School, who plan to pursue college degrees.
The scholarships will be awarded in amounts that will total about $50,000 annually for one or more students at each institution.
"This is a perfect example of the millionaire-next-door phenomenon," said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. "This was a very quiet woman apparently who through the course of her life lived sparingly and accrued a lot of money. She was someone who lived frugally ... and is able to make a difference charitably."
Because she had virtually no close family and apparently interacted with few people in her final years, foundation officials have scant details about Mrs. Meshanko's life or how she and her husband built their fortune.
But attorneys involved with her estate have been able to piece together this snapshot:
Lydia Klimenko was born July 13, 1920, in the tiny village of Acmetonia in Harmar. Her parents, Matvey Klimenko and Helen Dubadel Klimenko, were Russian immigrants and the upbringing she received in the Orthodox church "was very important to her," said Alison Smith, an attorney at PNC Financial Services Corp. who helped prepare Mrs. Meshanko's will when she worked at Downtown law firm Feldstein Grinberg Lang & McKee.
After high school, Mrs. Meshanko went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a clerk. She worked her way up to a position as an executive assistant who handled matters that today would be done by a certified paralegal, Ms. Smith said. "Back then I don't know if there was an official title of paralegal, but that's clearly what she was. She reviewed contracts between the railroad and third parties such as utilities."
It's unclear from estate records whether Mrs. Meshanko held a bachelor's degree but she earned an associate's degree in art from CCAC in 1998, said Lindsay Aroesty, assistant director of donor services and planned giving at the Pittsburgh Foundation.
"She was interested in art her whole life. She talked about being an artist and that's how she spent the end of her life: taking art classes and painting at home. She was still taking art classes at CCAC" the year she died, Ms. Aroesty said.
Peter Meshanko also went to Springdale High School, said Mrs. Stayianos, who believes he may have been an automobile mechanic or worked in some other capacity in car maintenance.
Charles Hadad and Tracy Zihmer, attorneys at Feldstein Grinberg currently administering Mrs. Meshanko's estate, believe the couple's wealth grew largely from stock investments and the dividends those investments produced.
"She kept her stock in the share certificate form and meticulously traded it herself," Mr. Hadad said. "That's a big hurdle we've had: marshaling all her assets. There are bits and pieces everywhere."
Though Mrs. Meshanko owned a handful of land parcels in addition to her residence on Field Club Road, those were not developed or leased and therefore didn't produce income, he said.
The Pittsburgh Foundation became involved with Mrs. Meshanko in late 2011. She had told an employee at a First National Bank branch where she was a regular customer that she wanted to use her wealth to promote education. FNB officials contacted the foundation and Ms. Aroesty agreed to meet Mrs. Meshanko.
"She was incredibly bright, sarcastic and witty," Ms. Aroesty recalled. "She didn't say the [scholarship recipients] had to have a specific grade-point average or a specific level of financial need. She felt we should try to flesh out the kid not necessarily the smartest in the class, but someone who worked hard. She had a blue collar work ethic."
"The key in her mind was education," Ms. Smith said. "It was the key to being, not just successful from the monetary standpoint, but to making a solid, worthwhile contribution to society."
Though she was close with Mrs. Meshanko for only a few months, Mrs. Stayianos said, "I fell in love with her. I told her, 'God put you in my pew for a reason.' "
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.