Farmer stuns community with $10 million gift

In the small towns dotting southwest Iowa, if people aren’t somehow related, there’s a good chance they at least know each other. So when someone dies at one church, parishioners are likely to come from another to pack the pews for the funeral.

That didn’t happen on Nov. 30 when only 50 people attended the Mass of Christian Burial for Edwin “Bud” Skalla at St. Mary Parish in Portsmouth. The bachelor had no descendants and, at six weeks shy of 93, he had outlived most of his contemporaries. And because he had been in a retirement community for 13 years, few people knew him anymore.

But then, not many really knew him before. Skalla, a successful farmer and shrewd businessman, was a loner.

Father John Dorton, who never met him, said yes when Ray Chipman, Skalla’s conservator and co-executor, asked to speak after Communion. He previously told the priest, “You are going to be on the receiving end of a very big estate.” When Father Dorton asked how big, Chipman said, “You’ll soon know.”

‘We owed it to him’

Chipman gave the people at the funeral a hint that, really, they didn’t know Skalla at all.

“He told the folks that Bud had a very generous heart,” Father Dorton told Our Sunday Visitor. “He said, ‘This may not fit with the image that you have of him, but in the coming weeks, you will know what I’m talking about.’”

Skalla left property and assets worth more than $10 million to 12 churches in the Diocese of Des Moines and one in the Diocese of Sioux City. In addition to a one-thirteenth split among them, he willed his main farm, valued at nearly $3 million, to St. Mary, where he had attended the long-gone school and where he is now buried in the parish cemetery alongside his parents and several brothers.

Clarence Reinig, 79, was co-executor, and his late brother had married one of Skalla’s sisters. He and Skalla were friends for more than 50 years.

“As administrators, we thought that everybody should know who this guy was, and what he did,” Reinig said. “We owed it to him to let people know. We didn’t want to just give out the checks.”

Skalla, one of eight children, grew up in the Great Depression and was determined to do better than what he experienced. He bought his first farm, then eventually bought five more. He raised cattle and planted feed crops, and when it became too much work, he rented out the land. He made financial investments, too, and was secretive and protective of his money. Some went as far as saying he was paranoid about it.

“He told me a long time ago that the first million (dollars) was tough, and then it got a bit better,” Reinig said.

‘Didn’t fit in’

Skalla went dancing when he was young, and once had a girlfriend who grew so weary of him working all the time that she left. When most everyone else got married, he became the odd man out.

“He just didn’t fit in, and he kept more to himself,” Reinig said.

The land was his focus, along with his collection of antiques, machinery and his 1988 Lincoln Continental Mark VII. He was proud of what he owned and what he did, and he zealously cared for his mother who died at 100.

In 1984, Skalla asked Chipman, who worked at a bank, to be executor of his will. The two developed a business relationship, then a friendship. In 1995, a judge ruled Skalla to be incompetent and Chipman, now 82, became his conservator. Skalla entered Elm Crest Retirement Community in Harlan, Iowa, in 2000 when he could no longer care for himself. Even there, he pinched pennies.

“I bought him new clothes, and I thought he would be pleased,” Chipman said. “He made me take them back. He said he never spent $275 on clothes, and he wouldn’t start now.”

Reinig often took him for rides, but Skalla never offered to buy gas. Nor would he share his stash of candy and ice cream.

Yet a softer side sometimes emerged, like four years ago when he broke down and cried when Chipman said he had prostate cancer. Years before that, he purchased a replacement headstone for the grave of Bernard Skalla, an infant cousin who died in 1908 and also was buried at St. Mary’s cemetery.

‘Depth of his faith’

Parkinson’s disease took away Skalla’s ability to walk, the use of his right hand and his voice. Yet he could smile for his two best friends who were faithful visitors.

His health deteriorated in November. The rents on the farms were due on Dec. 1, but Chipman collected them early. On Nov. 26, he went to Skalla’s bedside, leaned over and quietly told him that he got the rent, that everything was OK now. There was no response.

Reinig visited him twice that day and planned to return later. While he was out on a tractor on his own farm, he got a call that Skalla had passed away.

Chipman returned to Elm Crest to finish business.

“When I thanked the staff for their excellent support, I broke down and cried. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “Bud was certainly my friend.”

Skalla attended St. Mary’s, and he attended Mass and Communion services at Elm Crest, but he didn’t talk about personal things like faith.

“I’m sure that deep down he had feelings that he never showed, and that he had deeper faith than anyone would have given him credit for,” Chipman said.

The bequests, Father Dorton said, came from a man with a very generous heart. “I think it speaks to the depth of his faith, and it speaks also to his love of his community,” he said. “His heart never really wandered very far from here, and I think that he wanted to make an impact that would benefit the churches and the community.”

The auction was held in February.

According to Chipman, each church will receive more than $700,000 after expenses are paid.

Chipman and Reinig said that however the churches spend the money, they hope that they’ll erect plaques in memory of Bud Skalla.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.