5 local groups get $1M each

PAY DAY — From left, Blake Potthoff of the Fairmont Opera House, Lenny Tvedten of the Martin County Historical Society, Mae DeWar-Aust of Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center Foundation, Major Dale Hixenbaugh of the Salvation Army and Jane Kotewa of the Fairmont Community Hospital Foundation each picked up $1 million checks on Friday from the Marlin Milbrandt estate.

FAIRMONT — Fairmont attorney John Edman described Marlin Milbrandt as independent, opinionated and a real behind-the-scenes guy who maintained a strong interest in community events and organizations.

Milbrandt loved to hunt and fish, and scout around lake shores searching for Indian artifacts such as arrow or spear heads. He frequently railed against income taxes and was a passionate investor in the stock market.

Edman eulogized Milbrandt in front of a captive audience in his downtown law office on Friday as representatives from five local organizations gathered to hear about Milbrandt’s life and collect $1 million checks from his estate. Some of them had known Milbrandt. Some did not, but all sat in rapt attention wanting to know more about the man whose generosity will impact the entire community through his gifts to the Fairmont Opera House, Martin County Historical Society, Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center Foundation, the Salvation Army and the Fairmont Community Hospital Foundation.

Edman had been out of law school only a few months when Marlin Milbrandt entered his law office.

“I got to know him, and he became a friend,” Edman said. “He was successful. He had money. He had assets.”

And he had a sense of humor. For several years, Milbrandt drove an old black pickup with “Poor Farm” spray-painted on the tailgate. He referred to his farm by that name and would answer his telephone with “Poor Farm.”

As Edman reminisced about his 40-year friendship with Milbrandt, he told of the man whose generosity manifested itself through many anonymous donations to a variety of local charities.

“Marlin made of lot of gifts during his lifetime,” Edman said. “He not only helped his friends and family financially if they needed it, but he also gave gifts to charities, most of them to your organizations, but others too. You probably got anonymous gifts at the end of the year. Marlin didn’t like income taxes so he would give away money at the end of the year to save on taxes, but also because he cared about your organizations.”

Edman asked if the representatives recalled any anonymous year-end gifts of $5,000 or $10,000 or appreciated stock.

“Those were from Marlin, and he did this for many years,” Edman said.

Milbrandt ran his “Poor Farm” southwest of Fairmont, and he owned other farmland. He never married or had children, Edman said, but about 15 years ago, he retired and moved into Fairmont.

“He lived with his friend, Violet Lueth. In the last few years, he had a lot of health problems, some of them pretty serious,” Edman said. “Violet Lueth changed her whole life to be his caretaker, and her children also helped. She really should be commended for all that she did to keep Marlin in the house and not in a nursing home. His goal was never to go there.”

Milbrandt died on Jan. 14, 2017, at the age of 91.

As Milbrandt worked with Edman to set up his estate, the attorney, knowing the man’s penchant for anonymity, told him his gifts probably would become public knowledge.

“He paused for a minute and said, ‘I guess that’s all right because I’ll be dead. I won’t know about it,'” Edman recalled.

Each added that once the final estate is settled after receiving clearance documents from the state and federal governments, any remaining funds will be distributed. He didn’t have an exact number but anticipated a possible addition of about $300,000 for each entity.

“He thought each group should have the ability to decide what to do with it,” said Edman, noting there were no stipulations attached to the gifts. “It’s not restricted in any way.

“Marlin was a great believer in local. He felt that the biggest bang for your buck was to keep it at home and help your own community. He narrowed it down to the five of you. He never wavered after making his choices. He lived his life the way he wanted to.”

The beneficiaries all expressed shock a few months ago when Edman phoned them with the news of the gifts. They recalled being stunned, elated and emotional.

Blake Potthoff, executive director of the Fairmont Opera House, recalled hearing the news during the board’s first meeting to discuss a capital improvement campaign for the historic theater. Original plans to raise between $3 million and $5 million to just repair the Opera House were enlarged to a $10 million campaign to expand and renovate with the installation of an elevator, new offices and meeting rooms.

“Everybody at the table was teary-eyed. Everybody was crying,” Potthoff said.“We wouldn’t have been able to think about an addition without this gift.”

“You still have to pinch me,” said Mae DeWar-Aust, director of Lakeview Methodist Health Care Foundation. “When I got the phone call, I was trying to write everything down, but I finally just stopped. There were lots of tears.”

DeWar-Aust said the money will go into the foundation’s building fund, moving it a step closer to construction of a new health care facility for the aging population.

The Fairmont Community Hospital Foundation uses proceeds from its endowment fund to award grants to the hospital to finance equipment or amenities to improve the patient’s experience.

Jane Kotewa, foundation board chairwoman, said she was stunned and speechless when she received news of the $1 million gift.

“Oh my goodness! Just think about the longevity, how long these gifts are going to influence the community,” she said.

Jon Nelson, divisional director of development at the Salvation Army northern division headquarters in Roseville, assured that the Milbrandt funds would remain in Fairmont. He was as yet unsure exactly how the money, which he referred to as “a blessing,” would be used although it would go for benefit programs and services in Fairmont. With the impending retirement of local leaders Major Dale and Major JoAnn Hixenbaugh, the Salvation Army will transition from a corps unit model offering church services to a service model with benefit programs and services.

The board of directors of the Martin County Historical Society will determine how the money is spent, said Lenny Tvedten, executive director, although he does have a few ideas for improvements at the Pioneer Museum. He assumes part of the funds will go into the organization’s endowment, but digitalizing newspapers, creating a virtual tour of the museum, improving display and storage areas and security upgrades are on his wish list.

“This was a shocking surprise. It doesn’t happen very often,” Tvedten said about the $1 million gift. “As a non-profit, you never know where the next dollar is coming from.”