Geoffrey Holt was an unassuming caretaker of a mobile home park in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where he lived a simple, but strange life.
Residents would see Holt roaming the town dressed up — riding his lawnmower, heading to the convenience store, parked along the main street reading a newspaper or watching cars go by.
He did odd jobs for others, but rarely left town. Despite having taught driving to high school students, Holt had given up driving. Instead he chose a bicycle and eventually the lawnmower. His mobile home in the park was mostly empty of furniture — no TV or computer. The legs of the bed went through the floor.
“He seemed to have what he wanted, but he didn't want much,” said Edwin “Smokey” Smith, Holt's best friend and former employer.
But Holt died earlier this year with a secret: He was a multi-millionaire. And what's more, he gave it all to this community of 4,200 people.
His will had brief instructions: $3.8 million to the city of Hinsdale to benefit the community in the areas of education, health, recreation and culture.
“I don't think anybody had any idea he was this successful,” said Steve Diorio, chairman of the town's board of selectmen who occasionally waved Holt from his car. “I know she didn't have a lot of family, but still, to leave her in the city where she lived… It's a huge gift.”
Money could go a long way in this Connecticut River town nestled between Vermont and Massachusetts with plenty of hiking and fishing opportunities and small businesses. Named after Ebenezer Hinsdale, an officer in the French and Indian War who built a fort and salt mill. In addition to the Hinsdale House, built in 1759, the town has the nation's oldest continuously operating post office, dating back to 1816.
There has been no formal gathering to discuss ideas for the money since local officials were notified in September. Some residents suggested upgrading the city hall clock, restoring buildings, perhaps buying a new ballot counting machine in honor of Holt, who always made sure to vote. Another possibility is to create an online driver training course.
Organizations will be able to apply for trust grants through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, drawing on the interest, approximately $150,000 annually.
Hinsdale will “use the money they left very sparingly, as Mr. Holt did,” said Kathryn Lynch, the city administrator.
Holt's best friend Smith, a former state legislator turned executor of Holt's estate, had learned of his fortune in recent years.
She knew that Holt, who died in June at the age of 82, had a variety of interests, including collecting hundreds of model cars and train sets that filled his rooms, covered the sofa and stretched into a shed. He also collected history books, with Henry Ford and World War II among his favorite subjects. Holt also had an extensive record collection, including Handel and Mozart.
Smith also knew that Holt, who earlier in life had worked as a production manager at a closing grain mill in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, invested his money. Holt would find a quiet place to sit near a stream and study financial publications.
Holt confided in Smith that his investments were doing better than he ever expected and he wasn't sure what to do with the money. Smith suggested that he remember the city.
“I was kind of stunned when I found out it all went to the city,” he said.
One of Holt's first mutual fund investments was in communications, Smith said. This was before cell phones.
Holt's sister, Allison Holt, 81, of Laguna Woods, Calif., said she knew her brother invested and remembered that not wasting money and investing were important to their father.
“Jeffrey had a learning disability. He had dyslexia,” she said. “He was very smart in certain ways. As for writing or spelling, it was a lost cause. And my father was a professor. So I think Geoff felt he was letting my dad down. But maybe taking away all that money was a way to compete.”
She and her brother grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their father, Lee Holt, taught English and world literature at American International College. Their mother, Margaret Holt, had a Shakespearean scholar for a father. She was an artist who “imbibed the values of the Quaker Society of Friends,” according to her obituary. Both parents were peace activists who eventually moved to Amherst and participated in a weekly vigil in the town that addressed local to global issues of peace and justice.
Their children were well educated. Geoffrey went to boarding schools and attended the former Marlboro College in Vermont, where students designed their own curricula. He graduated in 1963 and served in the US Navy before earning a master's degree from the college where his father taught in 1968. In addition to his driver's license, he briefly taught social studies at Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, before taking the job of the mill.
Alison remembers their father reading them Russian novels at bedtime. Geoffrey could remember all these long names of many characters.
He seemed to be borrowing a page from his own upbringing, which was strict and austere, according to his sister, a retired librarian. His parents had a vegetable garden, kept the thermostat low and accepted donated clothes for their children from a friend.
She said Geoffrey didn't need much to be happy, didn't want to draw attention to himself and might be afraid of moving. He once turned down a promotion at the mill that would have required him to relocate.
“He always told me his main goal in life was to make sure nobody noticed anything,” she said, adding that he would say “or you might get in trouble.”
They didn't talk much about money, although he often asked her if she needed anything.
“I feel so sad that he didn't let himself go a little bit,” she said.
But he never seemed to complain. Also, he wasn't always alone. As a young man, he was briefly married and divorced. Years later, he approached a woman in the caravan and moved in with her. He died in 2017.
Neither Alison nor Geoffrey had children.
Holt suffered a stroke a few years ago and worked with therapist Jim Ferry, who described him as thoughtful, intellectual and kind, but not comfortable following the academic path family members took.
Holt had developed mobility issues after his stroke and was unable to ride his lawnmower.
“I think for Geoff, mowing the lawn was relaxation, it was a way to connect with the outdoors,” Ferry said. “I think he saw it as a service to the people he cared about, which were the people in the trailer park who I think he really liked because they weren't flashy people.”
Residents hope Hinsdale will get a little more attention because of the giveaway.
“It's really a forgotten corner of New Hampshire,” said Ann Diorio, who is married to Steve Diorio and serves on the local planning board. “So maybe that puts it on the map a little bit.”
McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire.