HINSDALE, NH – Geoffrey Holt was a modest caretaker at a mobile home park in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where he lived a simple but curious life.
Residents would see Holt walking around town in worn clothes – driving his lawn mower, heading to the convenience store, parked along the main road reading a newspaper or watching cars go by.
He did odd jobs for others, but rarely left town. Although he had taught high school students how to drive, Holt had given up driving a car. He instead opted for the bike and finally the lawn mower. His mobile home in the park was virtually empty of furniture – no television or computer either. The legs of the bed went through the floor.
“He seemed to have what he wanted, but he didn’t want much,” said Edwin “Smokey” Smith, Holt’s best friend and former employer.
But Holt died earlier this year with a secret: He was a multimillionaire. And what’s more, he gave everything to this community of 4,200 people.
His will contained brief instructions: $3.8 million to the city of Hinsdale to benefit the community in the areas of education, health, recreation and culture.
“I don’t think anyone knew he was this successful,” said Steve Diorio, chairman of the city’s selection committee, who occasionally greeted Holt from his car. “I know he didn’t have a lot of family, but still, to leave him behind in the town where he lived… It’s a wonderful gift.”
Money could go far in this Connecticut River town, sandwiched between Vermont and Massachusetts, offering plenty of hiking and fishing opportunities and small businesses. It is named for Ebenezer Hinsdale, an officer in the French and Indian Wars who built a fort and flour mill. In addition to Hinsdale House, built in 1759, the town has the oldest operating post office in the country, dating to 1816.
There have been no official meetings to discuss ideas regarding the money since local officials were informed of them in September. Some residents have proposed upgrading the town hall clock, restoring buildings, perhaps purchasing a new ballot counting machine in honor of Holt, who always made sure he voted . Another option is to set up an online driver training course.
Organizations could apply for grants through a trust through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, earning about $150,000 a year in interest.
Hinsdale “will use the remaining money very frugally as Mr. Holt has done,” said Kathryn Lynch, city administrator.
Holt’s best friend Smith, a former state legislator turned executor of Holt’s estate, had heard of his fortune in recent years.
He knew that Holt, who died in June at age 82, had varied interests, such as collecting hundreds of model cars and train sets that filled his rooms, covered the sofa and hung in a shed. He also collected books on history, with Henry Ford and World War II being among his favorite subjects. Holt also had an extensive record collection, including Handel and Mozart.
Smith also knew that Holt, who had worked earlier in his life as a production manager at a grain mill that closed in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, had invested his money. Holt would find a quiet place to sit by a stream and study financial publications.
Holt told Smith that his investments were doing better than he had ever expected and that he didn’t know what to do with the money. Smith suggested he remember the city.
“I was a little stunned when I found out it was all going to the city,” he said.
One of Holt’s first mutual fund investments was in communications, Smith said. This was before cell phones.
Holt’s sister, Alison Holt, 81, of Laguna Woods, Calif., said she knew her brother was investing and remembered that not wasting money and investing was important to their father.
“Geoffrey had a learning disability. He suffered from dyslexia,” she said. “He was very intelligent in some ways. When it came to writing or spelling, it was a lost cause. And my father was a teacher. So I think Geoff felt like he was disappointing my dad. But maybe spending all that money was a way to compete.
She and her brother grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their father, Lee Holt, taught English and world literature at the American International College. Their mother, Margaret Holt, had a father who was a Shakespearean scholar. She was an artist who “absorbed the values of the Quaker Society of Friends,” according to her obituary. Both parents were peace activists who eventually moved to Amherst and participated in a weekly vigil in the town that addressed local and global issues of peace and justice.
Their children were well educated. Geoffrey went to boarding schools and attended the old Marlboro College in Vermont, where students had study plans they designed themselves. He graduated in 1963 and served in the U.S. Navy before earning a master’s degree from the college where his father taught in 1968. In addition to driver’s education, he briefly taught social studies at Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, before getting his job. at the mill.
Alison remembers their father reading Russian novels to them at bedtime. Geoffrey could remember all those long names of several characters.
He seemed to borrow a page from his own upbringing, strict and frugal, according to his sister, a retired librarian. His parents had a vegetable garden, kept the thermostat low, and accepted clothes donated by a friend for their children.
She said that Geoffrey didn’t need much to be happy, that he didn’t want to draw attention to himself and that he was perhaps afraid of moving. He once turned down a promotion at the factory that would have required him to move.
“He always told me his main goal in life was to make sure no one noticed anything,” she said, adding that he would say “otherwise you might get in trouble.”
They didn’t talk much about money, although he often asked her if she needed anything.
“I feel so sad that he didn’t let go just a little bit,” she said.
But he never seemed to complain. He wasn’t always alone either. As a young man, he was briefly married and divorced. Years later, he became close to a woman in the mobile home park and moved in with her. She died in 2017.
Neither Alison nor Geoffrey had children.
Holt suffered a stroke a few years ago and worked with therapist Jim Ferry, who described him as thoughtful, intellectual and distinguished, but uncomfortable with following the academic route taken by members of his family.
Holt had developed mobility issues following his stroke and could no longer use his lawn mower.
“I think for Geoff, mowing the lawn was relaxation, it was a way for him to connect with the outdoors,” Ferry said. “I think he saw it as a service to the people he cared about, which was the people at the trailer park who he really liked because they weren’t fancy people.”
Residents hope Hinsdale will get a little more attention thanks to this gift.
“It’s basically a forgotten corner of New Hampshire,” said Ann Diorio, married to Steve Diorio and a member of the local planning board. “So maybe that will put him on the map a little bit.”
McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire.
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