Russ Gremel is “a very simple man” who prefers oatmeal to fine dining. He’s lived in the same house on the outskirts of Chicago for 95 years, and drove the same weathered Dodge for a quarter of a century.
But what might surprise you about Gremel is that he’s a millionaire. Or at least he was, until he donated his $2 million stock to a local nonprofit.
“I grew up in a different generation,” said Gremel. “The Bible had an 11th commandment that said, ‘Save 10 percent of your earnings.’” After his family lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, they lived an extremely frugal life. “We went from comparable wealth to abject poverty in 24 hours,” Gremel told the Chicago Tribune. “We had no money. There were no food stamps. There was nothing except your friends and neighbors.”
Still, in the 1940s Gremel was able to purchase $1,000 of stock in a local pharmacy chain. His brother, who worked in a pharmacy, told him, “Drug stores are a good business because old people will always need medication and women will always buy cosmetics.”
Sound advice — over 70 years, Gremel’s stock grew from $1,000 to more than $2 million as the local chain grew into the retail behemoth Walgreens, valued at over $62 billion.
As Gremel entered his 90s and saw the stock value continue to climb, he figured it was time to do something with his small fortune. But instead of going on a spending spree or lavish vacation, he chose to donate it to the Illinois Audubon Society, a local nonprofit that protects wildlife and promotes environmentalism.
Gremel never married or had any children, and thought, “What am I gonna do with this money? Give it to my relatives and ruin their life?”
He has always loved the outdoors. When he was 19, he trekked across the country, hitchhiking and hopping trains all the way out to Yellowstone National Park. And he helped foster love and respect for nature in his 60 years as scoutmaster for a local Boy Scout troop.
Gremel planned to leave the money to the society when he died, but then decided, “Why not give it to them now when I can have the pleasure and enjoyment of going there and seeing it?”
So last year, Gremel donated his Walgreens shares to the Audubon Society and they used the funds to purchase a nearly 400-acre property to be used as a wildlife refuge. The space will be called the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary.
An article in the Audubon Society’s magazine describes it as “a place where scouts will always have a place to camp and fish… a destination where birds will always soar and sing, and where visitors of all ages and walks of life can open their hearts and minds to the wonders of nature.”
To Gremel, that’s the only point of having wealth at all — to use it to bring good into others’ lives. “That’s what money is for,” he said. “If you can’t do good with it, don’t have it… I know my outlook on life is unusual, but I have a good life.”