A 96-year-old secretary amassed a secret $8 million fortune—here's how

Sylvia Bloom and husband Raymond Margolies. Courtesy of the Bloom family.
Henry Street Settlement

Sylvia Bloom wasn't born into wealth: The 96-year-old, a child of Eastern European immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and put herself through college at Hunter. But at the end of her life in 2016, her family and friends learned something about her that she had been keeping quiet for years: She was a self-made millionaire — and she was donating her fortune to good causes, according to a report in The New York Times.

Bloom, who made her money by both investing wisely and living modestly, distributed more than $8 million in her will. A total of $6.24 million will go to the Henry Street Settlement for disadvantaged students, the largest single donation from an individual to the group in 125 years, the Times reports. Another $2 million will be split between her alma mater and an additional scholarship fund that's yet to be announced.

When the extent of her fortune became clear, it surprised even some of the people closest to her, Bloom's niece Jane Lockshin tells CNBC Make It. Lockshin is also treasurer of Henry Street's board and executor of Bloom's estate.

"I was flabbergasted! I know Sylvia had enough money to live on but I did not know the extent of her estate," she says. "My aunt was a very private person and never mentioned the extent of her estate to anyone. She probably thought that was no one's business but her own."

This secret bitcoin millionaire is giving away $86 million to charity
This secret bitcoin millionaire is giving away $86 million to charity

Though Bloom wasn't vocal about making money, she was shrewd in the way she went about it. In 1947, she joined Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, a Wall Street law firm, where she worked as a legal secretary for 67 years and observed the investment strategies of the lawyers.

"She was a secretary in an era when they ran their boss' lives, including their personal investments," Lockshin tells the Times. "So when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him, and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a secretary's salary."

Despite the wealth she accumulated, which she split among three brokerage houses and 11 banks, Bloom kept a low profile: "She and my uncle lived a modest but comfortable life," Lockshin tells CNBC Make It.

Bloom and her husband Raymond Margolies, a New York City firefighter, teacher and part-time pharmacist who died in 2002, lived in a rent-controlled apartment. And while Bloom did dress well and own a fur coat, Lockshin says the coat "was Persian Lamb, not Ermine. She was not a conspicuous spender."

According to David Garza, Henry Street's executive director, Bloom "was a child of the Depression and she knew what it was like not to have money. She had great empathy for other people who were needy and wanted everybody to have a fair shake," he tells the Times.

Her main priority was helping others.

These billionaires are handing over their fortune to charity and not their kids
These billionaires are handing over their fortune to charity and not their kids

Her donations, including the one to Henry Street, which now serves more than 60,000 people and provides health care programs and transitional housing services in addition to its educational support, is "the epitome of selflessness," Garza says.

"These resources will strengthen our Expanded Horizons program in an unprecedented way," he tells CNBC Make It. The program "serves students from 9th grade through college completion, offering free college counseling, SAT prep, tutoring, visits to college campuses and continuous support to participants until they complete their degree.

"We are profoundly grateful to Jane Lockshin and Sylvia Bloom."

Bloom's philanthropic impulses are similar to that of other self-made millionaires and billionaires who have also made it a priority to give back. Ronald Read, a one-time janitor and gas station attendant in Vermont, for example, quietly amassed $8 million fortune thanks to his smart budgeting habits and by investing in companies like Procter & Gamble, J.P. Morgan Chase, CVS Health and Johnson & Johnson. When he died, he left most of the money to his local library and a hospital.

A New Hampshire woman who won the Jan. 6 $559.7 million Powerball jackpot, vowed to donate $150,000 to Girls Inc. and $33,000 apiece to three chapters of End 68 Hours of Hunger in the state. And the creator of the Pineapple Fund, an anonymously run charity, announced they would donate $86 million of bitcoin to good causes, such as unconditional cash transfers to people living in poverty.

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