LINCOLN (AP) — Maybe you saw Bonnie Kaltenborn.
Maybe you saw her walking with her cane as she made her rounds from her small apartment on the south edge of downtown. To the banks up the street, to the concerts at Foundation Garden, to the library, to her lawyer's office.
Or maybe you saw through Bonnie Kaltenborn.
Shoes too thin for the cold. Knit gloves patched with duct tape. Bad teeth. She visited one bank for its free coffee, the other for its popcorn. She ate many of her meals at Matt Talbot before the soup kitchen moved out of walking distance, and she was a regular at the food pantry at a downtown church.
“If you had seen her walking around downtown, you would have thought she was a homeless person,” said Brad Sipp, whose law office was just three blocks from Kaltenborn's apartment at 13th and L.
“She always wore a pair of yellow polyester pants and an aqua-blue light parka. And she'd be out and about summer, winter, whatever, dressed like that.”
The lawyer told the Lincoln Journal Star that he met the white-haired woman a few years ago when she burst through his door, no appointment.
“And quite honestly, I thought she had nothing, but she said: 'I want a will.' ”
He didn't think he'd still be talking about her today. Or just now wrapping up her estate, sending five-figure gestures of generosity to 24 charities — two years after she died.
* * *
She didn't start with much.
She grew up with an older brother in an apartment near 61st and Havelock.
In 1937, when Bonnie Lou was 4, her father worked as a grocery clerk at Stanley & McCulla. In 1938, he delivered for Roberts Dairy. In 1939, he was a laborer.
But he also was a drinker. And by 1940, Bonnie's family was broken, her mother telling the court her father was skipping his $20 support payments.
“To me, I thought she had a terrible life,” said her cousin, Danny D. Case. “My mom always said she didn't have a good home life, which is why she was the way she was.”
Bonnie would never grow close to her father, who remarried and landed in Beatrice, Case said. Nor was she particularly connected to the rest of her family.
She died Dec. 9, 2011. Her 60-word obituary listed no survivors. Day didn't even know she was gone until last week; he hadn't seen her for years, not since his mother died.
“We always thought she was kind of homeless. We always thought it was kind of weird: She would appear to see my mom and then we'd never see her for a year or two.”
Day tries to be the family historian, but he has a blank spot when it comes to his cousin. He knows Bonnie's brother — an Air Force sergeant — died in the 1970s in Colorado.
He knows Bonnie spent years working in Los Angeles before returning to Lincoln.
He knows she had a tender side, like her father.
A cheap side, too.
“Her granddaddy? Heck, he wouldn't spend a dime if it saved his life. She comes from that type of family.”
* * *
When Bonnie moved into 1317 L St., she wouldn't pay to get the gas connected to her stove. She used her microwave. When that broke, she cooked by hot plate.
Sometimes she'd walk down the hall to Bette Sperry's apartment. The building manager would open her door, and there was Bonnie, a bag of microwave popcorn in her hand.
She thinks about it and, finally, says: Yes, she'd consider Bonnie a friend. The tenant in E3 was private, but Sperry learned a little through their conversations.
Bonnie spent much of her life as a typist in California. When she decided to come home, she didn't hire movers: She filled her car and drove 1,500 miles east. Then she returned to Los Angeles for the second load.
“She was a very frugal person. After she paid her rent and utilities, she allowed herself $40 a month.”
She might have had a boyfriend at one point, but toward the end, she had little social life. She had pushed her family away.
“I don't know how to put it delicately — she didn't pay much attention to her appearance and her clothing. She could be really crotchety and eccentric.”
Sperry would watch her friend leave their building. Headed across the street to U.S. Bank for popcorn, up the block to TierOne for coffee. Returning from Matt Talbot with cookies or tomatoes for Sperry.
She was one of the few to discover her friend's secret.
“She didn't have a phone, so a lot of times I let her use my cellphone. And she was checking on her annuities and CDs.”
* * *
A few years ago, Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach was struggling.
The kitchen was feeding hundreds of people every day but was scraping to raise the $2 million it needed — after losing its lease — to move from downtown to North 27th Street.
Bonnie approached the director, Susanne Blue. “She came back to my office and told me she would like to help and she felt so bad we were in the predicament we were in, and she handed me a check for $1,000.”
Blue didn't know how to react. She knew Bonnie, but she knew her like she knew hundreds of other guests.
“I didn't know her stability factor. I certainly didn't think she'd be capable of making a gift like that. But she did. It didn't bounce.”
Matt Talbot's guests had helped out before, but it was just a few dollars here, maybe a $5 bill.
“That's a major gift. Those kinds of gifts don't happen all the time. And they certainly don't happen from one of our clients.”
Still, Bonnie was a mystery. Matt Talbot's staff tried to buy her a warmer coat, thicker shoes, better gloves. She would return them days later, said Lynda Flynn, operations director.
“She would take them, but then she'd bring them back and say: 'I really don't need these. What I had was OK.' ”
Bonnie was one of Flynn's favorites. The older woman would talk fondly about California, about a shelter there, and Flynn would encourage her to return, even researching bus tickets west.
Bonnie asked how she'd ever get to the bus station.
“I said, 'I'd take you, Bonnie. I would pick you up and take you there.' She probably talked about it for a couple of years, but she never did it.”
Matt Talbot reached its fundraising goal and moved. Flynn found Bonnie a bus pass, and she used it, and she walked occasionally, but they didn't see her as much.
And then she was gone.
“I never knew we were in her will until she died,” Blue said.
* * *
Maybe you saw her white hair and her blue coat and her cane.
Maybe you saw through her.
When her lawyer looked, he discovered a six-figure estate. She'd invested in bonds during her working years, and the money she saved in retirement she put toward certificates of deposit.
“She knew down to the penny what she had,” Sipp said. “She was the most frugal person I ever met.”
The first time Bonnie walked through his door, she asked Sipp to divide her estate among 24 national charities. She returned, switching it to all local charities. And then she was back.
Sometimes, he thought she was just escaping the cold.
The last time, she wanted a better balance between local and national groups.
She had her reasons. She remembered older students in Havelock who had helped her, so she gave to the TeamMates Mentoring Program. She gave to the library because she spent so much time there. She gave to Trinity United Methodist Church, which hosted FoodNet.
She gave to the Lincoln Symphony Foundation. She had never been to the symphony; she just liked that kind of music.
Sipp helped clear out the 78-year-old's apartment when she died. He found so little, a couple changes of clothes, a few items he gave to the mission.
But when he cleared out her accounts, he helped Bonnie give $20,000 each to 24 charities.
“She was very clear she wanted her money to go to good,” Sipp said. “And it did.”
The first payments went out earlier this year; the final round of $8,000 checks were mailed this month. Some went to national health organizations — the Heart Association, the Leukemia Society — she'd found in a library book.
Others went to those who had touched her.
Like Matt Talbot, where a photo of Bonnie hangs high on a wall, cane hooked on her arm, a plate in her hand, waiting to be served.
Flynn doesn't need to look at it to remember.
“I see her as a frugal, silver-haired lady in a blue coat and gloves taped with duct tape — and she was happiest as can be.”
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