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Frugal alum wills $13 million to 'my kids'

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/22/2017 Jim Stingl
Leonard Gigowski ran a grocery store and a nightclub in Milwaukee and didn't retire until he was 75. © Photos courtesy of St. Thomas Mo Leonard Gigowski ran a grocery store and a nightclub in Milwaukee and didn't retire until he was 75.

MILWAUKEE — In life, Leonard Gigowski ran a corner grocery store. The bachelor loved ballroom dancing and pigeon racing.

In death, he found a way to help generations of students pay their tuition at St. Thomas More High School, his own alma mater back when it was called St. Francis Minor Seminary.

This quiet and frugal man left $13 million in a scholarship fund that covers up to half the tuition for needy students who don't qualify for the private school choice program and its state aid payments.

"He lived a very simple life, nothing extravagant whatsoever in his lifestyle. For the most part, he saved his money and wanted to provide a legacy, which he did," said Larry Haskin, Leonard's lawyer and friend who helped him set up the Leonard Gigowski Catholic Education Foundation.

Leonard was 90 and still in his New Berlin home when he died of cancer on July 21, 2015. He never married or had children. All but one sibling preceded him in death.

He made a few small bequests to individuals and family members, but the vast majority of his estate went toward the scholarships, as he wished.

Mary McIntosh, president of Thomas More on Milwaukee's south side, recalls meeting Haskin for coffee and learning of the foundation. "He told me the size of Leonard's gift, and I almost fell off my chair," she said.

This school year, a total of $489,000 was awarded to 131 students to cover either one-half ($5,400) or one-third ($3,600) of the annual tuition, which is $10,800. The goal is to distribute 5% of the fund balance each year, thus keeping it going into perpetuity. Students can renew the scholarship each year as long as they keep their grades up.

All of that is a pretty good reason for the school to feel grateful, especially in this week devoted to giving thanks.

"It's a fantastic recruiting tool to be able to reduce tuition, and to make it a bit more affordable for the families," said Haskin, a graduate of Pio Nono High School, also a predecessor of Thomas More.

So who was Leonard Gigowski and how did he become a millionaire 13 times over?

Jeff Korpal was one of Leonard's closest friends. He is 63, so Leonard called him "Kid." Korpal told me Leonard grew up in West Allis and for a while considered becoming a priest. He was a devout Catholic all his life.

After serving as a cook in the Navy during World War II, Leonard went to work for Roundy's as a meat cutter. He received stock from the company and held on to it for a long time before selling it and investing wisely, which created much of his nest egg.

Leonard opened a grocery store at 29th and Clybourn streets in the Merrill Park neighborhood and ran it for many years. He owned a nightclub and dance studio in the same block, along with several residential properties in the area.

Leonard retired around age 75. Korpal, a real estate broker, helped him sell the Milwaukee properties. Korpal said he never asked his friend about money and had no idea he had so much.

"He was a tight man. Leonard would buy shoes on a discount, even if they didn't fit him, just to save a buck," Korpal said. "He wanted to save money and give it to people more needy than he was."

Although he never went on dates or on vacation, Leonard enjoyed dancing as a social outlet. "He had his tuxedos and he'd go two, three, four nights a week. They had these weekend events, this ball and that ball, and I don't think he missed many," Korpal said.

He kept as many as 50 to 100 pigeons in a shed on his New Berlin property. He would load the birds into his vehicle and drive them 100 or more miles, then release them to race back home. He won trophies and kept detailed records of the pigeons' success.

Leonard made many generous donations to Thomas More, most years giving about $25,000 to the annual fund. He contributed $660,000 to a capital campaign in 2001-2003.

The scholarship foundation is his grand finale. He thought of the students as his children. For his 90th birthday, he was surprised with an assembly in his honor at Thomas More, and everyone sang to him.

"I want to sponsor Catholic education for my kids," he told Korpal. "In his mind, he was giving it to the kids, not the school. He made that pretty clear."

Follow Jim Stingl on Twitter: @columnboy

 

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