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Millionaire who lived 'poor' leaves windfall to Salvation Army

January 25, 2012 |  8:22 am

The Salvation Army is accustomed to donors dropping a few bucks or quarters into their kettles, but one Modesto woman left a check for $1.7 million after her death.

Elinor Sauerwein died in 2010 at the age of 96. Her financial advisor John Bullock recently turned over the check on her behalf.

"It was like one of those cartoon moments, where the eyes go out and they come back in," said Brian Arid of the Salvation Army in Modesto.

Bullock said he had a cashier's check prepared for the $1.7-million amount and wanted to drop it in the kettle, walk away and not say a word.

"The estate attorney says it's not a real good idea," he said.

Sauerwein and her husband were millionaires, though they never showed it.

"She didn't spend money on anything she didn't absolutely have to. She lived as if she was a poor person," said Bullock. "She went on one vacation in the 30 plus years that I knew her."

Because of Salvation Army by-laws, half of $1.7 million goes into the Modesto chapter's endowment and the other half must be put toward brick-and-mortar projects like new shelters. Interest from the endowment will go to day-to-day operations in Modesto -- making the frugality of Elinor Sauerwein a legacy for years to come.

"Twenty years, 30 years, 40 years from now, this gift will still be making a significant impact to this community," Salvation Army Capt. Michael Paugh said.

The Salvation Army has received sizable surprise donations in the past. Someone dropped a $10,000 check into a bucket in Menlo Park. Also over the holiday season, an anonymous donor put a $2,000 diamond-and-sapphire ring into a Salvation Army kettle in Miami, according to Reuters. The ring was tucked inside a $50 bill. And another $2,000 diamond ring was plopped into a Kansas City, Kan., Salvation Army bucket.

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-- Andria Borba, Fox 40 Sacramento

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