A FINAL LESSON IN KINDNESS
By ANDREW MCGINN
Vivian Autenreith made just $183 a month as an elementary teacher in Jefferson during the 1949-50 school year.
Seventy years later, her true worth can at last be revealed.
The Greene County Community Center and the Greene County Medical Center have received a combined $1.2 million — $1,248,355.92, to be exact — from a trust established by Mrs. Autenreith shortly before her death in 1991 at age 76.
Where did a school teacher who made just $2,196 a year come up with that kind of money?
The easiest answer is, from the bottom of her heart.
“She and her sister both were very gentle, caring people, and loved children,” said Ellie Brown, co-trustee of the trust Mrs. Autenreith created in honor of her only son, Rory Autenreith, who passed away in 2007.
Management of the trust’s assets fell to Mrs. Autenreith’s sister, Velma Radebaugh, whose death in 2019 at the age of 98 triggered the distribution of funds.
The Rory Autenreith Trust has now been completely dispersed, Brown said, with the Greene County Community Center receiving $845,570.61, and the Greene County Medical Center receiving $402,785.31.
“It’s big enough to make some substantial changes,” said Dennis Hammen, parks and recreation director for the city of Jefferson, which owns the rec center.
There are no concrete plans yet for Autenreith’s gift, Hammen said, but there are plenty of ideas, including the possibility of moving the facility’s weight room to the lower level and expanding the building to the south, which could enable 24-hour access to weight equipment.
“It’s great,” Hammen said of the gift. “We can do something that can really change the building.”
Mrs. Autenreith ultimately never got to see the rec center, which opened in 1998. But it was her hope in 1990 that a facility like it would one day be built.
Had the rec center not been built, Brown said, the entirety of the trust was to go to the hospital.
“A lot of people are going to be shocked,” confessed Brown, a legal assistant at the law firm of Finneseth, Dalen & Powell who remembers Mrs. Autenreith well as a girl growing up in town.
A Greene County native who was raised on a farm north of Jefferson, Mrs. Autenreith taught elementary school in her hometown for nearly 30 years, having graduated from Simpson College in 1937 and completing graduate work at Columbia University in New York City and the University of Michigan.
Tragedy befell Mrs. Autenreith and son Rory in 1945, when her husband, Dean Autenreith, was killed on his way back home from World War II.
Staff Sgt. Autenreith — who had gone off to war when Rory was just 2 months old — was hitching a ride aboard a B-17 en route to Newfoundland from the Azores when an engine fire forced the crew to ditch in the North Atlantic the night of July 5, some two months after the euphoria of V-E Day.
Ellie Brown would later graduate with Rory Autenreith in the Jefferson High Class of 1961.
Velma Radebaugh — a school teacher herself who never married and had no children — deserves credit for her stewardship of the trust, according to Brown.
The sisters later owned a local business, The Crafters, together.
“She was so frugal,” Brown explained, “because she knew Vivian’s wishes. “She owed it to her big sister to preserve the money so it would go to the people that were entitled to it.”
The trust benefitted in later years from the sale of family farmland, Brown said, of which 25 percent went to the trust.
But, ultimately, it all comes down to the forethought of one teacher and the thoughtfulness of another.
“The only way to describe these ladies,” Brown said, “is that they were gentle souls.”