It was a surprise when Ruth Bedford left $40 million to the Foxcroft School, a private girls’ institution, last October. Now the late heiress’s estate is announcing two more unexpected gifts: $40 million apiece to Norwalk Hospital and Westport Weston Family YMCA, both Connecticut nonprofits her family helped establish nearly a century ago.
By the time Ms. Bedford died last year, just six weeks shy of her 100th birthday, she had served as a Norwalk Hospital volunteer for more than 50 years, arriving every day in her baby-blue uniform to work in the gift shop.
Despite her fortune, "she was one of us," says Carol Bauer, a hospital volunteer and former chairman of the hospital’s board. "If you didn’t know about her family’s background, you would never have known she was wealthy."
The Bedford family’s association with the hospital and the Y goes back decades. Her grandfather, Edward T. Bedford, a Standard Oil executive who founded a company now called Ingredion, was the hospital’s chairman in the early 1900s and donated money for a nursing school in 1926. In 1929 he paid for a new building that doubled the hospital’s size.
Before Ms. Bedford’s bequest, say hospital officials, the family had given at least $10 million to the medical center.
Since Ms. Bedford did not attach any strings to her bequest, hospital officials plan to take the next six months or so to decide how to use the money, says John Murphy, chief executive of Western Connecticut Health Network, of which Norwalk Hospital is an affiliate.
"Despite the very real economic pressures that exist in health care today, we realize this can’t be used to defray operating expenses," says Dr. Murphy. "So we’ll look at our options and ask how do we enhance and strengthen the vitality of the hospital."
Some ideas under consideration include directing portions of the bequest toward education programs for medical personnel, building improvements, new or enhanced programs, and the development of new patient-wellness projects.
Ms. Bedford’s bequest will push the hospital into the future by providing new resources that will enable the most up-to-date training and care. And while the family’s philanthropy may have started with Norwalk Hospital, it didn’t end there.
Edward Bedford also helped start the Westport Weston Family YMCA in 1923, later paying for its pool and women’s center. Ms. Bedford’s parents, Frederick and Lucie, bought land in 1944 for Camp Mahackeno, the organization’s summer day camp.
Following her parents’ example, Ms. Bedford gave money in the 1980s to renovate and expand the Y’s downtown Westport, Conn., location and served on its board. Ms. Bedford and her sister, Lucie, also gave the organization most of the money for a new fitness center. Those gifts, however, do not come close to Ms. Bedford’s final act of generosity, an amount that is unusual for a community center.
"I’ve worked for the Y for 46 years, and I’ve never heard of a YMCA gift of this size," says Philip Dwyer, interim chief executive of the Westport organization.
He says Ms. Bedford’s bequest will go toward endowment, building improvements, and programs.
A Modest Donor
Described by friends and family as an avid sportswoman who flew planes and loved to ride horses, Ms. Bedford was also unimpressed with philanthropists who made a show of their giving, and she would have been embarrassed by all of the attention her bequests are getting, says Libby McKinney Tritschler, her great-niece.
While the philanthropist grew up with wealth, her parents taught her to avoid ostentation, and that attitude informed how she gave and how she lived.
During her lifetime she donated prolifically but often anonymously, and she enjoyed living modestly. She drove a 1969 station wagon and mucked the horse stalls connected to her home, a building that once served as the kennels and stable on her family’s former estate.
Says Ms. Tritschler: "She was brought up with the idea that you don’t need more money than you need to live on, and you have a responsibility to give back."