LOWVILLE — When the late schoolteacher Anna Margaret Tabolt died peacefully on Feb. 4, the community at large had no idea what she had written into her will. In the weeks to follow, 26 organizations received letters detailing how she had left portions of her otherwise unknown fortune to them.
“I opened that envelope and cried like a baby,” said Lynn Brown, president and general manager at the Watertown WPBS station. “It’s the largest bequest we’ve ever received and quite honestly, it came out of nowhere.”
“I was in Meghan Harne’s office when I opened the letter,” said Mary Pelletier-Hunyadi, president of the Lowville Free Library board. “I was speechless. I had never even met her,” she said.
Over and over again, recipients said that they did not know Miss Tabolt during her lifetime, and that they had no idea that she had thought so well of them.
Yet in increments of $80,000, Ms. Tabolt gave her life’s money to the Lowville Free Library, Lowville Fire Department, New Bremen Fire Department, Brookside’s Adirondack Mennonite Retirement Community, Constable Hall, the Humane Society Association of Lewis County, the Lewis County Agricultural Society, the hospital foundation at Lewis County General, Beaver Camp’s Adirondack Mennonite Camping Association, WPBS, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, St. James Catholic Church, the animal refuge Spring Farm Cares and numerous other goodwill organizations that have not yet mentioned it.
“One of the first things I did was find her obituary because I wanted to know more about who this person was,” Mrs. Pelletier-Hunyadi said. “People I speak to still want to know more about who she was. She was obviously a woman ahead of her time.”
“Ahead of her time” was often repeated as recipients looked back at the details of Ms. Tabolt’s life.
The few records available show that she was born to Robert and Bertha Turck Tabolt on March 22, 1935, in Lowville. She grew up on a farm on Snell Road in New Bremen.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1956 from Saint Rose in Albany.
She worked with the Welfare Department in Utica and then as a family worker in Syracuse. She earned her master’s degree in social work in 1962 from Syracuse University.
Then she worked in Syracuse and Rochester and Washington, D.C., before the preschool program at the Syracuse Family Service Center made her consider another passion.
At SUNY Oswego she earned yet another layer of education, her teacher certification. Then she turned towards the classroom. She worked as a second and third grade teacher in Rochester before returning to work in her hometown in 1972.
She taught second grade at Lowville Central School from 1973 until her retirement in 1990.
“I was a young teacher when she was here,” said Cheryl R. Steckly, the superintendent of schools in Lowville. “It stood out to me then how kind she was. She was generous in her work with her students and other people. It’s what she stood for as a person. It’s what her character was. She was always such a generous person that it almost doesn’t surprise me now that she had planned to give back.”
Ms. Tabolt’s sister Beatrice was also a teacher. Neither married or ever had children. Together they moved to Brookside Senior Living Community in October 1996 and Ms. Tabolt continued volunteering with Literacy of NNY, the Lowville Council of Churches Food Pantry and other groups.
“She was one of the first people I visited at the nursing home, but she was already ill,” said the Rev. James W. Seymour, who is new to the area.
“I visited her a number of times and I was very impressed with how she carried her illness. Whatever you write about her, it can’t be good enough.” he said.
Many recipients said that they wish now that they had known about the gift earlier, so that they could have told her while she was alive how much it meant to them.
“But she wanted to be a quiet giver, and she was that,” Mrs Brown said.
In fact, Mrs. Brown looked back at WPBS donation records after she received the letter. She discovered that Ms. Tabolt had given small donations between $25 and $100 to WPBS every single year since 1973.
“We only became a PBS station in 1971. She got on board that quickly and stayed with us every single year. Every single year.”
Mrs. Hayman at the animal refuge said that she had a similar experience after receiving the donation.
“We didn’t know her, but we checked our records and found that she had made small donations for years to our spay and neuter program,” she said. “We treat legacy gifts with the utmost respect so we will continue in that effort with this gift. Her memory lives on through us. That’s a responsibility we have now, to do the most good with what she has given to us.”
JoAnne Rhubart, director of the Lewis County Hospital Foundation, said that they, too, intend to use the gift to give wider and farther than before.
“I didn’t even know her, but it amazes me,” she said. “We’re pulling together a strong planned giving campaign that we have never had before. This can really make an impact.”
At the fairgrounds, the Lewis County Agricultural Society echoed a similar hope to pour it back into the community.
“We were totally floored,” Susan Berrus, secretary of the organization, said. “ We have 24 board members thinking about how we can best use it to benefit the most people. We’re brainstorming about our 200th anniversary in 2020 and what we can share with the community. It’s just wonderful.”
At St. Peter’s Church, they are still discussing the best ways to give more with the donation.
“With her spirit of charity in mind, we made a donation to our sister diocese in Syria to help refugees,” Father Seymour said. “We are also looking to invest in the church’s music program here, and in scholarships for our youth, to help young people attend summer camps like Guggenheim and others.”
The Rev. Donald A. Robinson of St. James Church in Carthage said that Ms. Tabolt restricted the donation to the church’s large cemetery, which will be a tremendous help. At the same time, those costs will not be coming out of the general fund, which it uses to do as much good as possible.
Appreciation and gratitude were the words most often repeated.
“We run solely on donations. A gift like this is absolutely massive,” Sue Faduski at the Lewis County Humane Society said. “We take care of the homeless pets in Lewis County, and there is not a lot of money in that. It is a rare gift. I don’t know that she ever came to our organization, but we appreciate her so much.”
We just feel gratefulness,” said Mike Judd, the executive director of the Adirondack Mennonite Camping Association known for Beaver Camp. “Her connection to us I’m not even sure of, honestly. Maybe she was involved years prior to my involvement, I’m not sure. We just feel surprise and gratefulness.” .
And in the next months, many new projects will begin.
“We had postponed a roof project, but this allowed us to start it this week,” Mr. Judd said. “Another thing we are considering is renovating some of our facilities. We’ll also add to our endowments, but these are projects we’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t had the resources.”
At the Lowville Free Library, construction will also be underway soon.
“We’re replacing our shed roof and updating our rain gutters, and installing a generator to keep our sump pumps going when it gets to raining here because our location often floods,” Mrs. Pelletier-Hunyadi said. “We’re applying for grants that will likely pay it back again, but this means we can afford to get started now. And then we’ll probably add to our investments so that it helps our budget every year going forward, even when local funding is tight.”
Those who did know Ms. Tabolt spoke of her warmly.
“She was a local girl. She has relatives here. We knew her because she was a part of our community,” Caroline Schneeberger at St. Stephen’s Church said. “She was very interested in history, both family and community. She left money to our church and then another $80,000 to St. Peter’s Cemetery in New Bremen for its general upkeep and for her family plots. She was a very dignified person, and pleasant to speak with.”
“I knew her from the library,” Meghan Harne said. “She came in to help people with literacy and digital literacy. She was lovely to visit with.
“On her way in and out, she would stop in at the desk to visit with whoever was working. She was always helping people and checking in on us,” she said.