She drove an old beater of a Chevy, with no back seat and its trunk secured by a bungee cord.
She recycled before it became fashionable, collecting anything and everything. She lived in a tiny house in Waterford cluttered with all of the stuff she’d hauled home in the back of that Chevy.
She usually wore worn flannel shirts and pants, and if you didn’t know her – or hadn’t borrowed money from her – you might have mistaken her for a homeless bag lady, friends said. Perceived as generous and likable by some, miserly and cold by others, they all might have been mistaken.
When Josephine Marks died at 98 in September 2001, she left behind an estate valued at roughly $1.3 million.
We’ve seen these types of stories before, about people who endured the Great Depression and lived frugally as a result, but invested well and left behind fortunes when they died. Last year, it was Elinor Sauerwein, who never owned a washer, dryer or dishwasher and cut her lawn with a push mower until she was 92. When she died, she bequeathed $1.74 million to the Salvation Army in Modesto.
This time, it is Marks. Rob Kunde, her great-nephew and executor of her estate, came to Modesto last week bearing gifts, specifically a check for $54,000 to the new Boys & Girls Clubs of Stanislaus County at C.F. Brown Elementary School. He delivered similar checks to the Modesto Gospel Mission and to the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau so that children can attend Camp Sylvester near Pinecrest. He also handed one for $20,000 to the Waterford Education Foundation. Then it was on to Sacramento, Davis, Guerneville and San Francisco to donate to five other charities. Each organization will receive more visits and more checks, he said.
“She left the residual of her will to benefit kindergarten and grammar-school age children and the arts, and left it up to the executor to make those decisions,” Kunde said.
How did she amass such an estate?
Marks was born in 1901 in Boston and soon went to an orphanage, Kunde said. She later worked in the orphanage and put herself through school to become a nurse. Like the majority of Americans, she endured the hardships of the Depression.
“That heightened her appreciation for security,” he said. “She worked hard to survive.”
Friend and Waterford real estate agent Ben Ward said that at some point – he doesn’t know when – Marks married a doctor, but that the marriage didn’t last and produced no children.
She was on Oahu, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and, Ward said, immediately returned to the mainland.
Neither Kunde nor Ward seems to know much about her life from the time she returned to the States until she arrived in Waterford sometime around 1974. They do know this: She sold real estate, acquired rental properties and made both secured and unsecured loans to people the banks turned down.
Marks was fair, charging from 8 percent to 12 percent interest, Ward said. But she was tough on people who fell behind on their payments. She didn’t hesitate to evict renters or call in notes. The latter is what brought her to Waterford.
“She foreclosed on some property,” Ward said.
She moved into a small house on E Street and began buying others, owning five in Waterford alone when she died. She evicted numerous renters for failing to pay the rent.
“She was a shrewd businesswoman,” said Kunde, who runs a water district in Kern County. “She accumulated a lot of money.”
In fact, he said, her holdings at one time surpassed $2 million. But she was victimized for $75,000 by a Waterford couple later convicted of grant theft, and scammed out of $769,000 from a woman in the Bay Area in an elder abuse case, Kunde said. Some of the money, though nowhere near all, was recovered in both cases.
Marks donated land to the city for an ambulance station, Ward said, and continued to help people. Yet she never wavered from her frugal ways.
“She had enough cash to last near a lifetime,” he said. “But when she came in (to his office) she always wanted me to buy her a doughnut, or to take her to lunch and pick up the check.”
At the same time, when the first of Ward’s 14 grandchildren was born more than 20 years ago, Marks established a bank account for the girl by depositing about $300 in it.
“She was a very kind person,” he said. “Yet she ran around looking like an old bum. If you didn’t know her, you’d think she was homeless. You’d think she didn’t have 2 cents to her name. And her house had more (stuff) in it.”
Ysabel Rockwell and Kathy Rocha, both involved with the Waterford Education Foundation, described Marks by using the same two words: a “character” and “eccentric.”
The older Marks got, the more eccentric she became. She fell under county conservatorship in 2000 and was placed in a rest home. Relatives sued the county to gain control of the estate shortly after Marks’ death in September 2001.
It’s taken more than a decade to determine her assets, recover the money due from outstanding loans, sell off her real estate and reach the point where her money can now benefit children and the arts as her will dictates, Kunde said.
“I don’t know if anybody really knew her,” Rockwell said. “But everybody knew of her – that’s for sure.”
Maybe all that anyone needs to know is that Marks came from an orphanage. That she relied upon her toughness, wit and guile to survive. That she lived most of her life alone. That some folks found her to be generous, while others saw her as quirky and even cantankerous. And yet more than a dozen years after her death, children in the Valley and in other areas of Northern California will benefit from the fortune she amassed.
Said her great-nephew and estate executor Kunde: “I view her will as some sense of redemption.”