Over the years, Olive Swindells piled up thousands of old newspapers, tin cans, milk jugs and other pieces of junk collected in her 94 years, all of it crammed into a broken-down house near Lochearn where she lived with her invalid husband, Bert.
But unbeknown to nearly everyone, she possessed something else: a stock portfolio worth $4.4 million.
When she died March 16, from a stroke while doing her income tax return, she left a will that bequeathed $3 million to Gallaudet University in Washington. No one knows if she had ever even seen the college.
"We had never heard of this woman until her lawyer called us to say she'd left us $3 million," said Mercy H. Coogan, a spokeswoman for the university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Mrs. Swindells and her husband both were legally deaf and lived for more than 50 years in a small two-story house at 4110 Bedford Road near Pikesville. Bert Swindells died last December. The couple left no children or surviving relatives.
"They were very unusual people," said Drannin Rose, a neighbor who knew nothing of the Swindells fortune until Olive's death. "They lived like they had nothing. They never put their trash out. They never cut down a tree, a bush or a weed."
Mrs. Swindells is the second elderly woman this year who died and passed on her secret fortune to a college.
Anne Scheiber of New York City, an Internal Revenue Service auditor, died at 101 and donated her $22 million stock portfolio to Yeshiva University.
And 87-year-old Oseola McCarty, who earned $150,000 in a lifetime of doing other people's laundry, donated her savings to scholarships for black students at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was honored by President Clinton in the fall.
Like the other two benefactors, Mrs. Swindells lived as if she were poor, despite the riches she made through shrewd investments.
Private and shrewd
A sharp-minded but intensely private woman who spent most of her life avoiding the rest of the world, Mrs. Swindells built her fortune in such stocks as H&R; Block, Schlumberger Ltd., DuPont and Royal Dutch Petroleum. Her total worth, including stocks, bank accounts and U.S. Treasury notes, was $4.7 million.
Weeks after her death, Mrs. Swindells' house was valued at $35,000 by an appraiser who decided that the eight-room house "suffered from severe deferred maintenance" and should be gutted. All the personal property she owned had a combined value of $11,293.
"There was dust upon dust upon dust, papers upon papers. They just let everything crumble around them," said John Raccuglia, a Fells Point antique dealer who bought the contents of the house, hoping to find something of value. He didn't.
The walnut and mahogany furniture, perhaps splendid in the Roaring '20s, had become moldy and rotted. One of the most valuable items in the house, worth about $250, was an ornate antique headboard. The Swindellses used it as a shelf in the garage.
"She may have been a millionaire, but it certainly didn't translate into the way she lived," Mr. Raccuglia said.
One of the few indulgences the Swindellses afforded themselves was a modest, sparsely furnished summer cottage in Naples, Fla. However, they had not returned there for most of the past decade.
An old business card in her belongings listed Mrs. Swindells' job title as "stockbroker" for the firm of Vicar Brothers. The National Association of Securities Dealers was unable to confirm whether the company still exists.
A fortune in 50 years
She bought the stocks so long ago that neither her attorney, Bruce E. Goodman, nor the local firm she invested with, Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., was able to provide any sense of when she started playing the stock market.
"My understanding is that when she married Bert back in the '40s, she was basically penniless," said Mr. Goodman, who met Mrs. Swindells about a year ago and prepared her will. "She accumulated all her wealth after they got married."
Her portfolio at the time of her death included 55 stocks, among them 36,834 shares of H&R; Block, her biggest holding. The value of those shares was $1.62 million.
Mr. Goodman said that during their half-dozen meetings, Mrs. Swindells was "always very businesslike, someone who struck me as priding herself on her independence, and not wanting to rely on anybody for anything."
She subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine, and handled all her financial affairs even into her mid-90s.
Mrs. Swindells seldom socialized and little is known about her. ZTC Records in her will show she was born in Canandaigua, N.Y., to Cecil and Suzy Rawlings, and papers found in her house suggest she moved to Maryland in the 1930s.
Hilda "Pat" Brewer, 92, who lives up the street, was one of the few people who knew her. In 1971, she bought AT&T; and some bowling alley stocks at the advice of Mrs. Swindells.
"I had a little bit of money and she helped me increase it to a great extent," Mrs. Brewer said. "That's what she was good at. She had an obsession with making money. It was all she thought about."
The two became friends shortly after Mrs. Brewer moved to the neighborhood in 1950. Then, Mrs. Brewer recalled, Mrs. Swindells was working as an office manager for a man formerly involved with the Manhattan Project.
"She didn't have a lot of money, but she was very, very smart," Mrs. Brewer said. "After she got married, she was wondering what to do with this brain of hers, and she started saving every penny and began playing the stock market."
Mrs. Swindells and Mrs. Brewer were friends for 45 years. But in all that time, Mrs. Brewer said, she never set foot in the Swindells house.
"She never wanted me to see it because of the way it was. I don't think they ever threw anything away. It was very strange," Mrs. Brewer said.
On rare occasions, Mrs. Swindells went to Mrs. Brewer's house for a bridge game and talked a little about her life, Mrs. Brewer said. Mrs. Swindells told her friend she had been married once before.
"She said it was an unsatisfactory marriage. She said her first husband was very controlling and very particular about their apartment always being in apple-pie order, and he would run his finger through the dust. She didn't like that," Mrs. Brewer said.
The two divorced and Mrs. Swindells married Bert Swindells, a draftsman, in 1945.
Both lost their hearing
Mr. Swindells had been completely deaf since he was a boy and had moved here from England with his family. His wife did not become legally deaf until much later in life, although she could still hear with the help of a hearing aid.
The Swindellses had no surviving family members to claim their fortunes or their junk. The stocks are liquidated now, and the trash mostly thrown away.
What's left sits today in a warehouse at John's Antiques on Eastern Avenue.
Among the array of cardboard boxes, metal cans, bottles and other seemingly useless items are thousands of pages from newspapers and poetry magazines, dating to the 1920s.
Mrs. Swindells saved dozens of newspaper articles on the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, as well as several letters written by Mr. Swindells' sister, which at times speak of money problems in the family.
Also saved are hundreds of poems that were read during the 1930s by the Baltimore branch of the American Poetry Circle, which was headed by Mr. Swindells' mother, Lucy Derrick-Swindells.
But unlike her mother-in-law, Olive Swindells stayed in the shadows all her life. No mention is made of her in any newspaper clippings, nor any mention of her in the minutes of her mother-in-law's poetry society meetings.
None of the letters at her home was addressed to her, and apparently only a handful of old photographs were taken of her.
Her plainly written will stipulated that 80 percent of her fortune be given to Gallaudet and 20 percent to the Daughters of the American Revolution Nursing Home.
Problem is, according to her lawyer, no formal nursing home exists by that name. Officials with DAR have filed a claim for the money -- about $800,000. If their claim fails, that money will go to Gallaudet.
No one can remember Mrs. Swindells ever talking about Gallaudet University. Her contribution was used by the college toward construction of a conference center on campus.
A possible answer may be found in the essays written by Mrs. Swindells' mother-in-law, who often wrote about how the rich and influential should make some provision toward "the education of the masses."
One such passage, written in the winter of 1943, reads:
Brains are not enough by themselves. Henry Ford could produce no automobiles in his youth, until he found a friend willing to lend him a thousand dollars. The late Wiley Post could not wing himself to fame, until the insurance paid to him upon the loss of one eye. And Lindbergh's great flight had to be financed.
Mrs. Swindells saved those words in an envelope for half a century.
Olive Swindells' top 10 holdings
Description .. .. .. .. .. Quant. .. .. Price .. .. Value
1. H&R; Block Inc. .. .. . 36,834 .. . $44.000 .. . $1,620,699
2. Schlumberger Ltd. .. .. 6,800 .. .. 58.250 .. .. . 413,575
3. Tyco International Ltd. 4,000 .. .. 53.000 .. .. . 212,000
4. DuPont . .. .. .. .. .. 3,000 .. .. 56.875 .. .. . 170,625
5. Royal Dutch Petroleum . 1,378 .. . 116.750 .. .. . 160,881
6. American Int. Group ... 1,525 .. . 105.250 .. .. . 160,506
7. Archer Daniels Midland. 6,948 .. .. 19.500 .. .. . 135,486
8. Mapco Inc. ... .. .. .. 2,400 .. .. 53.500 .. .. . 128,400
9. Flag Invest. Tel. Income 7,501 . .. 12.760 .. .. .. 95,721
10. Equifax Inc. ... .. ... 2,862 . .. 32.750 .. .. .. 93,730