Jeff Jardine

‘We haven’t seen any of it.’ $500k gift to Stanislaus Special Olympics stalled

Will benefits Local Special Olympics

But will the $500k reclusive ex-Modestan James Desch be spent on participants or to fund a summer conference for regional organizers in Modesto? Does that meet his instructions on how the money can be used?
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But will the $500k reclusive ex-Modestan James Desch be spent on participants or to fund a summer conference for regional organizers in Modesto? Does that meet his instructions on how the money can be used?

James Desch left the Stanislaus Special Olympics upwards of $500,000 when he died 18 months ago in Lake County.

But there’s a glitch: More than a decade ago, the individual county Special Olympics non-profits fell under the umbrella of Special Olympics Northern California. So the money the longtime but low-profile Modestan bequeathed them must go through the mother ship, which holds the non-profit status and handles the cash flow.

“They put it into a restricted account,” local director John Wray said. “We haven’t seen any of it.”

Wray said officials in the Sacramento headquarters told him they planned on using some the money to stage a conference in Stanislaus County for regional directors this summer. But Desch’s intent, according to estate administrator Richard Birk of Lake County, was that the money is used here in Stanislaus County and to benefit the participants, not for administrative purposes.

“To the chapter in Modesto,” Birk said. “He talked very specifically that it should be used in that community.”

Indeed, Desch’s will narrative regarding his former Modesto home read, “... upon my death, sell the house with the proceeds going to charity: 50% to Special Olympics Northern California Inc., with a requirement that it be restricted for use by the Stanislaus County program ...”

Officials from Special Olympics Northern California were not available Monday to say how they plan to spend the money. But really, whoever amasses a fortune over a lifetime and then donates it to a charity with the caveat: “I’d love to see it go toward administrative costs”?

Having the conference here is fine, Wray said. But rather than rent and expensive hotel or other property, Wray prefers that they partner with Howard Training Center, an agency that trains people with disabilities to work in the community and that one is compatible with the mission of the Special Olympics.

Wray wants to use the inheritance money to stage bigger and more regional events for the competitors – grander versions of the all-day Special Olympics event the local organization will stage Saturday at John F. Kennedy School. The track and field event will involve 150 athletes from Stanislaus, Mariposa and Merced counties. The remainder of the year, the organization serves 250 athletes who compete in bowling, bocce, basketball, track and field, softball, soccer and swimming.

Wray also wants to know more about benefactor Desch, who lived 35 of his 75 years in Modesto. This much is known: Desch never married and had no children, one of his nephews told me. Desch doesn’t appear on the state’s electronic voter registry anytime between 2002 and 2007, the latter year when he was identified as a Modestan in his brother’s obituary in an East Bay newspaper. He worked for decades in the supply area at Mervyn’s, the once-popular but now defunct department store on McHenry Avenue. Today, some former co-workers seem to recall his name but have trouble picturing him.

“He was very quiet but very kind,” said Michelle Norleen of Modesto, who worked in the store’s gift-wrap department. “I often wondered about him. He was very reclusive. He never engaged in the Christmas parties or anything.”

“He was always kind of flashy with his watches and jewelry,” said Chris Davis, who worked at the store in the mid-1980s. “But (he) smiled at everyone and was kind to everyone.”

Desch lived frugally and alone, making his fortune with a combination of real estate, baseball card collections and market investments, estate administrator Birk said. Desch moved to Lake County in 2012, where he kept the same kind of low profile he maintained while in Modesto.

“(Desch) was reclusive the whole time he lived here,” Birk said.

When he died in November 2015, Desch also made heirs out of his two nephews living in the Bay Area, a Special Olympics group in Mendocino, Habitat for Humanity in Lake and Mendocino counties, a Shriners Children’s Hospital in Florida and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

Needless to say, news of the inheritance floored Wray when he first heard about it nearly a year ago. He’s had no luck in learning much about the benefactor beyond what the nephews knew about him, which wasn’t very much.

“We don’t know who he was,” Wray said. “We’re thinking he might have been involved in Special Olympics here at some point. We’re looking for someone who knew him. We’d like to, in some way, say thanks.”

But for now, at least, Wray knows perhaps a little bit more about the man who lived so quietly, invested so well and died with Stanislaus County’s Special Olympics participants at heart.

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