By all accounts, Thelma Pearl Howard was a woman of modest means. She died on June 10, 1994, just 16 days short of her 80th birthday. Her closest friends and family thought the most interesting thing about Thelma was the thirty years she served as housekeeper to Walt Disney. They never imagined that she was also a multi-millionaire because of all of her shares of stock in the Walt Disney Company.
Thelma began her association with the Disney family in 1951. She took a job as the live-in housekeeper at the Disney home in Holmby Hills, California. She spent her days in the 3.6-acre mansion, where the family’s pool was larger than the home in which she grew up.
Thelma soon became a member of the Disney family. She involved the Disney daughters in the housework and taught them how to cook. She also learned the importance of keeping the kitchen well stocked with Walt’s favorite snack, hot dogs. She made such an impression on Disney that he dubbed her “the real-life Mary Poppins.”
Walt Disney knew how hard it was to get good help. He had tried, without success, to find someone who could maintain the home, cook the meals, and help raise his two daughters. Because of previous unfortunate choices for the housekeeper position, when Disney found a good match in Thelma Howard, he was all too eager to do whatever he could to keep her. In addition to providing Thelma free room and board at the luxurious mansion, he paid her a salary that was above average, although not extravagantly so.
There was one other perk Thelma enjoyed, though. This perk was one she did not advertise to her friends or family. Every Christmas and birthday, Thelma received a special gift from her employer in the form of shares of stock in the Walt Disney Company. Thelma faithfully tucked those shares away, never selling any of them during her lifetime.
Shortly after she received her first stock certificate, the Walt Disney Company began to grow. Four years after she was hired, Disneyland opened. That same year, Lady and the Tramp hit the screen, followed four years later by Sleeping Beauty. Other successes followed. In 1964 Mary Poppins earned $30 million, making it the top-earning film of that year. The woman who was known as the “real life Mary Poppins” saw her stock portfolio’s value balloon as a result.
After Thelma’s retirement in 1981, she moved to a modest two-bedroom home. She remained there until her health compelled her to move to a nursing home. All the while, she never gave a hint at how wealthy she was.
By the time of Thelma’s death, her holdings in the Walt Disney Company consisted of 193,000 shares, worth $9.5 million. In her estate plans, she designated half of her fortune to create the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation. It has provided millions of dollars to charities that focus on arts education and helping disadvantaged children.
Walt Disney knew a good investment when he saw one. In Thelma Pearl Howard, he not only found an invaluable housekeeper but a woman who would go on to bless countless other families.
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