HINSDALE, NH – Geoffrey Holt was unassuming as the caretaker of a mobile home park in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where he lived a simple but curious life.
Residents would see Holt around town in shabby clothes – riding his lawnmower, heading to the grocery store, parked along the main road reading a newspaper or watching cars pass by.
He did small jobs for others, but rarely left town. Despite teaching high school students how to drive, Holt had given up driving. He chose instead a bicycle and finally the lawnmower. His mobile home in the park was mostly empty of furniture – also no TV and no computer. The legs of the bed went through the floor.
“He seemed to have what he wanted, but he didn’t want much,” said Edwin “Smokey” Smith, Holt’s best friend and former employer.
But Holt died earlier this year with a secret: He was a multi-millionaire. And what’s more, he gave it all away to this community of 4,200 people.
His will had brief instructions: $3.8 million to the city of Hinsdale to benefit the community in the areas of education, health, recreation and culture.
“I don’t think anybody had any idea he was that successful,” said Steve Diorio, chairman of the town’s committee, who occasionally waved at Holt from his car. “I know he didn’t have a whole lot of family, but still, to leave it to the city where he lived in … It’s a huge gift.”
The municipality has not decided how they will use the money
Money could go a long way in this Connecticut River town, sandwiched between Vermont and Massachusetts, with abundant hiking and fishing opportunities and small businesses. It is named for Ebenezer Hinsdale, an officer in the French and Indian Wars who built a fort and grist mill. In addition to the Hinsdale House, built in 1759, the town has the nation’s oldest continuously operating post office, dating back to 1816.
There has been no formal meeting to discuss ideas for the money since local officials were notified in September. Some residents have suggested upgrading the City Hall clock, restoring buildings, perhaps buying a new vote counter in honor of Holt, who always made sure he voted. Another option is to create an online driver training course.
Organizations would be able to apply for grants through a trust through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, deducting the interest, about $150,000 annually.
Hinsdale will “use the money very sparingly, as Mr. Holt did,” said Kathryn Lynch, city administrator.
Holt’s best friend Smith, a former state legislator turned executor of Holt’s estate, had learned of his fortune in recent years.
He knew that Holt, who died in June at the age of 82, had various interests, such as collecting hundreds of model cars and train sets that filled his rooms, covered the couch and expanded into a shed. He also collected books on history, with Henry Ford and World War II among his favorite subjects. Holt also had an extensive record collection, including Handel and Mozart.
Smith also knew that Holt, who earlier in life had worked as a production manager at a closing grain mill in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, was investing his money. Holt would find a quiet place to sit near a stream and study financial publications.
Holt confided in Smith that his investments were doing better than he ever expected and he wasn’t sure what to do with the money. Smith suggested he remembered the city.
“I was kind of amazed when I found out it all went to the city,” he said.
A strict and frugal upbringing
One of Holt’s first mutual fund investments was in communications, Smith said. It was before cell phones.
Holt’s sister, 81-year-old Alison Holt of Laguna Woods, Calif., said she knew her brother invested and remembered that not wasting money and investing was important to their father.
“Geoffrey had a learning disability. He was dyslexic,” she said. “He was very clever in certain ways. When it came to writing or spelling, he was a lost cause. And my father was a professor. So I think Geoff felt he let my dad down. But maybe it was a way to compete to siphon off all that money.
She and her brother grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their father, Lee Holt, taught English and world literature at American International College. Their mother, Margaret Holt, had a Shakespearean scholar for a father. She was an artist who “absorbed the values of the Quaker Society of Friends,” according to her obituary. Both parents were peace activists who eventually moved to Amherst and participated in a weekly town vigil that addressed local to global peace and justice issues.
Their children were well educated. Geoffrey attended boarding schools and attended the former Marlboro College in Vermont, where students had self-designed degree plans. He graduated in 1963 and served in the U.S. Navy before earning a master’s degree from the college where his father taught in 1968. In addition to driver’s education, he briefly taught social studies at Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire before earning his job at the mill.
Alison remembers their father reading Russian novels to them at bedtime. Geoffrey could remember all the long names of several characters.
He seemed to borrow a page from his own upbringing, which was strict and frugal, according to his sister, a retired librarian. His parents had a vegetable garden, kept the thermostat low and accepted donated clothes for their children from a friend.
She said Geoffrey didn’t need much to be happy, didn’t want to draw attention to himself and might be afraid to move. He once turned down a promotion at the mill that would have required him to move.
“He always told me his main goal in life was to make sure no one noticed anything,” she said, adding that he would say, “otherwise you could get in trouble.”
Holt’s sister upset he didn’t treat himself ‘just a little’
They didn’t talk much about money, although he often asked her if she needed anything.
“I just feel so bad that he didn’t indulge himself just a little bit,” she said.
But he never seemed to complain. Nor was he always alone. As a young man, he was briefly married and divorced. Years later, he grew close to a woman in the mobile home park and moved in with her. She died in 2017.
Neither Alison nor Geoffrey had any children.
Holt suffered a stroke a few years ago and worked with therapist Jim Ferry, who described him as thoughtful, intellectual and distinguished, but not comfortable following the academic path taken by family members.
Holt had developed mobility problems after his stroke and missed riding his lawnmower.
“I think for Geoff mowing was relaxation, it was a way for him to connect with the outdoors,” Ferry said. “I think he saw it as a service to people he cared about, which were the people in the trailer park that I think he liked because they weren’t fancy people.”
Residents hope Hinsdale will be noticed a little more because of the gift.
“It’s actually a forgotten corner of New Hampshire,” said Ann Diorio, who is married to Steve Diorio and serves on the local planning board. “So maybe this will put it on the map a little bit.”