Few people at Children’s Memorial Hospital knew her name. She was simply “The Teddy Bear Lady,” the sweet old woman who brought stuffed animals to sick children and vowed to leave a “special gift” to the hospital someday.
The woman, Gladys Holm, who died last year at age 86, was a retired secretary who never earned more than $15,000 a year, never married and lived alone in a tiny apartment in suburban Evanston.
But she was more than just sweet. A tall woman with a wickedly delicious sense of style, she favored vivid red suits and wore big rings, drank scotch at the dinner table, told outrageous tales and skewered corrupt politicians.
And in her will, she left $18 million to Children’s Memorial Hospital, the largest single donation in the institution’s 115-year history, surpassing the $10 million gift from Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s.
Holm had been buying stocks for a long, long time.
“When her attorney called to tell me the amount,” said Jan Jennings, the president of the hospital, “I asked him to repeat it, since I was certain I had misheard.”
Nearly a half-century ago, Children’s Hospital had saved the life of a little girl in a family very dear to Holm. She had watched the little girl’s parents go through the agony of a sick child, Jennings said, and had witnessed the triumph of new medical technologies.
Her donation will go for research for diseases of the heart. It was a heart problem that threatened the life of her friend’s daughter, who was saved by a new technology. Indeed, it was the first so-called “blue-baby” surgical procedure in the United States.
That baby, Lynn Adrian, is now a professor of American studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And she said she was as shocked as everybody else that her Aunt Gladys - “I was 10 years old before I knew she wasn’t technically my aunt” - had a boatload of money.
“You know, you hear about these shy old women who lead isolated lives, keep to themselves, don’t speak up much?” Adrian said.
“Well,” she added, with a delighted chuckle, “my Aunt Gladys wasn’t like that at all.”
She recalled Holm’s parlor talk as being so adventurous that other adults often whisked the little ones out of the room.
“Aunt Gladys did not keep much to herself,” Adrian said.
But she kept quiet about her riches, and her generosity.
“We now know that the teddy bears were a pretext,” said Jennings, the hospital president. “It was a way for her to discreetly learn about a family’s money situation. If she learned they didn’t have much money, she quietly took care of their finances.”
Born and reared on a farm in Wisconsin, Holm, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, moved to Chicago at age 18 and took a secretarial job for a fledgling company, American Hospital Supply Corp.
Holm worked for the company’s founder, Foster G. McGaw, in small offices in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. When the company went public in 1951, she was given stock options and put on the executive committee.
American Hospital eventually became a giant in the industry, and Holm’s stock soared like a helium balloon. The company was acquired by Baxter International in 1985.
Friends said Holm also bought other stocks, especially those in companies that specialized in health research.
Her lawyer sometimes accompanied her on her teddy bear trips to the hospital, and they saw some almost unbearably sad situations. Holm was always profoundly shaken.
Seven years ago, friends got a hint that Holm might have a little money socked away, when she decided to throw herself a lavish party for her 80th birthday and had distant relatives flown in from Norway.
She had been weakened by osteoarthritis for many years. And at the end of her party, she fell and broke her leg. She was bedridden for the rest of her life.
While Holm lived in a modest apartment on Central Avenue in Evanston, she owned a king-sized red Cadillac.
In her will, she left the car to a woman who had cared for her in recent years, on three conditions. First, the car must be perfectly restored, at Holm’s expense. Second, the Cadillac must follow the hearse during her funeral. Third, the big red car must make one final trip around the block where she lived in Evanston, as a farewell.
Since Holm had no immediate family, and had outlived most of her friends, her funeral was sparsely attended. Only about 25 or 30 people came to pay respects. There were not enough men to carry the casket, so a graveyard worker was asked to help.
After the burial, the church pastor told those in attendance that Holm had made arrangements with a restaurant across from the cemetery. She had picked out a menu, and left money to pay for lunch for everybody.
The pastor delivered her final request: “She asks that you talk about the good times.”
The hospital held a memorial service Wednesday to honor Holm. A teddy bear was placed on every seat.