BRATTLEBORO -- About 10 years ago Dummerston resident Ruth Marx knitted a hat for Ronald Read because she thought the modest and simple Read could use some extra help to make it through the winter.
Read was careful with his money, Marx said, and she would see him looking for downed wood on a parcel of land in Dummerston across the street from her where Read's family once lived.
Marx said she never saw Read wear the hat, and as it turns out he probably could have bought a very warm hat of his own if his head was that cold.
Read died June 2, 2014 at the age of 92, and when he died he had stock holdings and property valued at almost than $8 million, most of which was left to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Brooks Memorial Library.
"People were stunned that he had that much money," Marx said. "I bought some old fence wiring from him once because I thought he could use the money."
Read was a quiet and private man, a lifetime resident of Windham County who grew up in Dummerston and who lived on Spruce Street before he died.
Not only did he refuse to flaunt his wealth; his estate included a 2007 Toyota Yaris valued at $5,000, but his closest friends and family members did not know he had even a tiny sliver of the fortune he left behind.
Read was born in 1921, grew up in a very small house in Dummerston and he was the first in his family to graduate high school.
He enjoyed picking stocks, his attorney said, and "over time these investments grew substantially."
Read's unrestricted gift of $1.2 million is the largest single bequest the Brooks Memorial Library has ever received since George Brooks helped found the library in 1886.
"This bequest is incredible. It's transformative," Brooks Memorial Library Executive Director Jerry Carbone said. "It's going to really provide for our future and relevance in the community and allow us to keep up with the times, and keep up with what this community needs to access quality library services."
Nobody particularly knew Read at the library, Carbone said. But apparently over the past six or seven years he has been quietly coming in to peruse the stacks and take out books.
Carbone said the library routinely receives gifts when someone dies and donations are made in former patrons' names, but usually in the hundreds, or occasionally thousands of dollars.
When Read's attorney let the library know a significant gift was left in the will Carbone said he informed the library trustees and town officials, and waited to find out just how much Read had left. The will had to make its way through the courts, and the library only found out last week that the money was on its way.
"It's a great story," Carbone said. "I feel like Mr. Read was a self-made man. He did not have a formal education, but he was very smart and he realized the impact that an institution like a library has on an individual."
The $1.2 million gift will substantially bolster the library's endowment, which stood at about $600,000 prior to the announcement of the Read bequest.
Carbone said the money will help the library move ahead with long-delayed capital projects, including a possible restructuring and renovation of the public space, and it could possibly help the library extend its hours after years of cuts forced by the town's budget crisis.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital received $4.8 million from the Read estate. It is the largest single gift the hospital has ever received.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Director of Development and Marketing, Gina Pattison, said the hospital also just received confirmation of Read's gift and the Board of Directors has not even had a chance to meet yet to figure out how the hospital will use the money.
Pattison said the money will be used for capital projects and infrastructure improvements.
"This is a substantial amount of money for the hospital to receive," Pattison said. "We are very appreciative of what Mr. Read left. It's pretty incredible. This is not something that happens on a regular basis."
Read was remembered as a simple and hardworking Vermonter, who was so determined to finish high school that he walked and hitchhiked into Brattleboro every day until he graduated in 1940 .
He served in World War II, in North Africa, Italy and the Pacific theater, returning to Brattleboro just before Christmas 1945.
For almost 25 years he worked at Haviland's service station at the corner of Green and High Streets. He retired, found that retirement didn't suit him, and then worked at JCPenny until 1997.
Read's attorney, Laurie Rowell, said Read did not spend money unless he had to and he hated to see anything go to waste.
"He had two lifelong hobbies: Investing and cutting wood," she said. "The generous bequests to the Brooks Library and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital attest to his skills at investing. The well-stocked woodpile in his garage attests to his love of cutting wood."
Read's stepson, Phillip Brown, lives on the New Hampshire Seacoast, and he traveled over to visit his stepfather every few months over the past few years, and more often as Read's health declined.
The only indication Brown had of Read's interest in the stockmarket was his daily reading of the Wall Street Journal.
"I was tremendously surprised," Brown said upon finding out of his stepfather's hidden wealth. "He was a hard worker, but I don't think anybody had an idea that he was a multi-millionaire."
Brown would drive Read to the library, and he said Read seemed to enjoy the experience, and as his health worsened Read was treated at BMH, and Brown said that experience as well seemed to make an impression on him.
Brown said Read was cutting his own firewood well into his 90s, and the two would often drive around looking for downed wood Read could throw in the truck and take home for his wood stove.
"He lived frugally," Brown said. "Some of us knew he had some investments, but obviously he had a whole lot more that we didn't know about."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be contacted at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.