EDITOR'S NOTE: In early January 2007, Sydney Stevens began the first of several interviews with Verna Oller for an article to be used in Stevens' Observer series "North Beach Girls of the Teens and Twenties." Even before the resulting story could be published, Verna talked further with Stevens, this time about a secret she wanted kept until after her death.
Verna Oller was one of a kind. At 95, she still split and stacked her own wood, did her own gardening and housework, and took a daily ration of food to the two horses boarding in the field beyond her yard. She lived in the house that she and her husband had built in 1934 for a total of $750.
Her transportation was by Dial-a-Ride, her main meal each day was taken at PACE, and she kept apprised of the news by reading several day-old newspapers discarded by the Ilwaco Library. At the time of her death Monday, May 10, 2010, her net worth was $4.5 million - less than the $5-plus million it was worth before the economic turndown, but a worthy sum nonetheless.
Frugal times Until her husband died in 1964, any of their own "surplus" money and Verna's first small inheritances and went into savings and loan accounts and Series EE federal savings bonds. "He didn't believe in the stock market," she confided.
Both the Ollers worked hard. When they married in 1932 Ed was working for Pacific County for $3.50 for an eight-hour day. On Jan. 1 that year they had $2 cash on hand, $46.75 cash in the bank, and $20 worth of coal oil, paid for.
From Sept. 14, 1934, through Jan. 16, 1935, Ed worked as a pile driver on the North Jetty getting $9.60 per day. In 1941 he went to work for the Bear River Logging Company at 75 cents an hour and in April that year he began working for Northern Oyster Company at $2.30 per hour.
Meanwhile, Verna worked weeding, picking and sorting cranberries. "Then, in October 1942," she said, "as I was walking home in a pouring-down rain from a cranberry screening job on Pioneer Road, the manager from the Willapa Oyster Company stopped to give me a ride. The oyster place was about one mile north of where I live.
"He wanted to know if I wanted to go to work for him. I said, 'yes'. He said, 'Be there at 5 p.m.' I was only getting 25 cents an hour for a temporary job sorting cranberries and he was offering a steady job in the oysters, labeling cans, at 50 cents an hour! And a woman that lived just south of me would pick me up and bring me home for 10 cents a day. I had it made!"
They lived simply. Verna made clothes for Ed and herself and Ed's young son. They had a large garden, a couple of cows and a pig, growing almost all of their own food. Except for the original loan for their property, which they paid off in three years, they never charged anything and never had a credit card. They kept a small amount in a checking account and whatever was left over from their paychecks each month went into savings.
A novice investor takes flight It was not until 1979, 15 years after Ed's death, that Verna began investing. At first, she went to a stockbroker in Astoria, but it wasn't long before she felt that she could manage her investments on her own.
"I read and I learned. At first I invested in stocks but now I pretty much deal with mutual funds. I've made some mistakes. I lost about one-fourth of all of it a few years back, but I've recovered it all and more."
She claimed her losses were her own fault. "I listen to Bob Brinker's 'MoneyTalk' ABC radio program on Saturday or Sunday mornings. A few years back, he said to sell but I didn't listen. He was right. That's when I lost a lot of money. I pay attention to him now and I read the paper every day. He says to just look once a week, but I watch every day," she laughed.
At the time of 2007 interview, Verna advised putting money in mutual funds. "I have some money in this European fund," she said, tapping the fine print on the financial page of the newspaper. "It earned 36 and 1/10 percent in one year - 104 and 2/10 in three years! Beacon paid 24 percent in one year and Royce paid 18 percent.
"You have to be careful. Sometimes you pay a penalty if you take your money out before five years are up. I'm not investing in those types now. If I died within five years then my estate would have to pay a penalty!" Verna chuckled as she told me this - absolutely serious about not paying that penalty, dead or alive, but she enjoyed the irony of her statement.
She was also firm in her belief that self-addressed stamped envelopes should be provided by investment companies for the use of their clients. She cautioned against doing business with companies that expected you to provide your own stamps.
Verna did her record keeping in a three-hole, spiral bound notebook. Her neat penmanship filled the pages of four slim volumes and when we talked she was continuing to record her investment activities - amounts and dates when she bought or sold.
Firm plans for public goodVerna was very clear about her plans for the money. "At first I thought about leaving it for a library for Long Beach. But I think a swimming pool would benefit more people. You can't swim in the ocean any more. It isn't safe. But swimming is good for everyone - young and old alike."
Soon after the Astoria Aquatic Center was completed, Verna paid a visit to the city of Astoria to find out all about it. She took Dial-a-Ride and walked into the city offices.
"I wanted to find out how much it cost them to build that pool. The people were real nice. They made copies of everything for me. The pool cost them $3 million.
"I think I'll be leaving at least $4 million for the swimming pool in Long Beach. They have acres and acres of land so they can choose a good place to put it. Maybe next to Culbertson Park. Somewhere central where it's easy to get to.
"I'm leaving $500,000 to the Ocean Beach School District for students and teachers, and another $500,000 to the Ocean Beach Education Foundation. The rest is for the swimming pool. But it's just for the building," she cautioned. "The city will have to maintain it themselves."
The decline in the market means about $3.5 million will now be available for a pool. People with experience in fundraising says this sum might be multiplied by two by taking steps like applying to regional foundations.
At this point, Long Beach has not yet committed itself to accepting this magnificent gift.
Keeping business even after retirement Verna worked until she was 76. After "retiring from the oysters," she worked at various restaurants on the Peninsula.
"I bussed tables, cooked, worked the cash register - whatever was needed. Then my sister Jane came to live with me. She was a public health nurse and she got interested in starting PACE. I helped her with that. We went to a restaurant supply house in Portland and bought the dishes and got them all set up. I was their first cook. But I didn't get along very well with the man in charge so I went to work for Jessie's instead.
"I did everything there - washed clothes, filleted fish, sorted fish - whatever needed doing. That's why I liked that job. I was always doing something different."
Verna's job at Jessie's kept her on her feet all day and her back was beginning to bother her. "So, I retired. For good that time. I didn't want to. I loved working there and they loved me, but the time had come!"
When she retired, Verna was driving a Toyota Tercel that had about 30,000 miles on it. Before too long, she sold the car and began using public transportation. It seemed fitting that Verna was honored as the one millionth rider of the Pacific Transit system. She believed firmly in public transportation and rode Dial-A-Ride to and from PACE every day for many years. "I could ride for 35 cents each way. Clear to Astoria if I want to. But it's even cheaper than that because I'm over 60. I can ride for $10 a month."
Verna loved a bargain and took advantage of every good deal that came her way. When she was still working at Jessie's, Verna admired the 'new' outfit of a fellow employee and was amazed to learn that it had come from a thrift shop. From that time on, Verna purchased all of her clothes from thrift shops on the Peninsula.
"Lots of the clothes are brand new," she said. "And they cost practically nothing!"
With the exception of her breakfast oatmeal, eaten with reconstituted powdered milk, most of Verna's food during her retirement years came from PACE. "It's only $3 a meal, but I work there so I get my meals free. I break down boxes, help serve, help clean up. I save all the scraps and bring them home."
The table scraps were what she ate for her own dinner and what she fed the horses.
"They love that stuff," she laughed. "You should see them fight over it. They eat hamburger. Everything! And they just love lemons! That's a special treat. Every once in awhile I give half a lemon to each one."
During the big winter windstorms of 2006/07, several trees blew down on the north side of her property. A young friend limbed the trees and cut them into chunks, but before he could find time to move the wood over to the house, Verna had taken her wheelbarrow, trip after trip, and had moved all the wood herself. The day I talked with her, she had long since split it into cordwood and neatly stacked it near her back door, ready for the woodstove.
Always had all she needed In spite of her frugal ways, Verna insisted, she always had all she needed and did exactly as she wanted. "I even did a lot of traveling."
Until her sister, Jane, moved in with her in 1974, Verna had never been outside of Washington or Oregon. But Jane loved traveling and Verna went with her on several occasions. "My first trip was to New Zealand and Australia in March 1974. We traveled all over the United States. In July of 1977 we went down to Panama. Another time we went to Guatemala and Mexico."
In the late spring of 2007, Verna's plan for her future was clear. "I'll be moving to Circle of Life in September," she said. "That's an adult care center."
When asked if she would continue going to PACE each day as she had for more than 20 years, she laughed. "Oh my no!" she said. "Meals are included in the price I'll be paying at Circle of Life. I'll eat right there - every meal!"
Verna was adamant that no one know about her money or her plans for a Long Beach swimming pool. "They'll know after I'm dead," she told me. "While I'm alive it's no one's business!"
Frugal, practical, forthright, and hard-working - Verna Oller was indeed one of a kind!