Many of us have “shirt-tail relatives” in our lives. Those close family friends or distant relatives who are bestowed the moniker of “honorary Aunt or Uncle” by our parents or grandparents. We sometimes don’t know where they came from or how they came to be associated with our family, we just know they have always been here and are loved by all.
Such was the life Vincent O. Greene and his “honorary family” the Hays’. Uncle Vince was a character and brought a lot of life to those family gatherings. However, unknown to the Hays family, he also brought a lot of money to the table as the following article explains:
Tom Kacich: Frugal man left millions to help others
For much of his life, Vincent O. Greene was an inscrutable man. Gregarious yet private. Well educated and well read but not well traveled. Unmarried and not a family man but part of a big “family.” Without children but a great supporter of many children.
When he died in 2015, his cover was blown.
Vincent Greene, a 30-year accountant at the University of Illinois who lived modestly, was fabulously wealthy. And although he already had been generous to many people he knew, he was about to become generous to many people he didn’t know. And his generosity would be long-lived.
“He was very outgoing, never knew a stranger, would stop and talk to anybody,” said Anna Mary Hays of Urbana, his close friend and financial assistant for more than 50 years. “But he was very private about his own affairs.”
So private, said Hays, that she didn’t know the extent of his wealth, calculated earlier this year at more than $15 million.
“I knew that he had some money but not as much as he did. He inherited some farmland but he was able to purchase some more,” she said. “But he started investing when he was in college as part of a class project. And he held onto this one particular stock (U.S. Tobacco) that gained him several million dollars.
“He was just really shrewd with his investments. He believed in buying things and holding onto them forever.”
Anna Mary Hays’ father, Leonard K. Hays, befriended Mr. Greene sometime around 1947, brought him to the family’s Monticello home for dinner and, according to a eulogy delivered by the late L. Keith Hays at Mr. Greene’s memorial service, a tradition was born.
“On Fridays Vince came to dinner,” Mr. Hays, a Monticello lawyer, said of his father’s friend. “None of us asked why. Some things just happen so Vince became our uncle, brother and a quiet presence with our Uncle Francis at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July picnics, weddings and funerals, and every other important gathering of the Hays family.
“We did not know much about him. Oh, we knew that he had a good job with the university. We knew that he had a family farm. We just knew that he was part of our extended family that argued and laughed together. Families, even the closest of families, often just accept each other, quietly and without fanfare. We did not know or need to know Vince’s business, he was always just part of the tribe. He was just our Vince and he was always there.”
Attorney John T. Phipps, who also had known Mr. Greene for decades, said he surprised him one day with a visit to his office in downtown Champaign.
“He came in to see me 10 or 12 years ago and said, ‘I need to do a will because I’ve got a lot of money,'” Phipps recalled. “He was driving an old car and before that he had another old car and I said, ‘How much are we talking about, Vince?’ And he said, ‘Five or six million dollars. I just laughed and said, ‘Yes, we need to do some work.’
“And it turned out that over the years that it was a lot more than that.”
Mr. Greene never married, had no children and his closest blood relatives are three nieces who live in Colorado and Kentucky. He took care of them in his will, as he did the members of his Hays “family” and the tenants who farmed his land in DeWitt and Livingston counties for many years.
His will also added money to the Vincent O. Greene Scholarship in Mathematics at the University of Illinois.
But there was — and will be — so much more. He left almost $2.5 million to scholarship funds at the University of Illinois colleges of Agriculture, Education and Business; to the Champaign County Farm Bureau Foundation; the Parkland College Foundation; the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation; the High School of St. Thomas More; the Clinton school district (Mr. Greene grew up in Wapella); the Illinois Agriculture Association Foundation; the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club; the Urbana Park District; the Urbana school district and the Champaign school district.
All of the scholarships stipulate that they are “for educational scholarships to deserving students of academic merit or promise that have shown good citizenship and demonstrated leadership attributes.”
“He wanted to put his focus on helping kids get an education. So I would say that he wanted his attention and his funds to help kids grow,” Phipps said. “He was concerned about the average good kid who was a good student, (and had) leadership, community involvement. And then need would determine how much.
“He was specific about that because he said if you’re rich you don’t need it, if you’re poor there’s other stuff for you. But the average kid, the average family, they’re the ones who need the help. That was what this was designed for.”
Mr. Greene also left a total of $1.1 million more to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, the American Diabetes Association, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Wapella, the Mills Breast Cancer Center at Carle, the Champaign Park District for the Virginia Theatre and for the Urbana Free Library and the Allerton Public Library in Monticello, the latter two to establish and equip a low-vision reading room.
Mr. Greene had macular degeneration but well into his 80s, Anna Mary Hays said, “he used the library in Urbana every single day. He would walk up there and read his Wall Street Journal and any other financial publications. And he’d visit with the people he called the regulars.”
He was notoriously frugal, living in a rented duplex in south Urbana, driving a manual transmission Toyota, never ordering coffee in a restaurant and never buying a subscription to the Journal, she said.
“He would not let loose of any money to buy any aids for himself. I remember taking him to a low-vision fair and he really wasn’t interested in anything that you’d have to purchase,” Hays said.
“But he also was a very generous person. If you needed help, you got it,” she said. “Education was very important to him and most of the kids that I knew he helped were people he had a relationship with, some of my nieces and nephews. And children of some of my friends. He never wanted to make a big deal of it.”
His biggest gift, Phipps said, will establish an endowment for college scholarships for the children of parishioners at St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Urbana. Revenue generated by the farm will help pay for up to half of a full-time student’s college tuition and other costs. Phipps said the fund would yield $100,000 to $125,000 a year.
“The world is populated with a lot of people like Vince who are just salt of the earth, and they’re the ones who make this world work,” Phipps said. “He was just one of those genuine people. He exemplified what’s really good about this country. You can’t define it but Vince was it. He was just a good man, a damn good man.”
In his eulogy, the late L. Keith Hays said it wasn’t until “the closing years of our lives together” that the Hays family learned more about the mysterious Mr. Greene.
“We did not know just how frugal a life he led until his generosity to young people seeking learning in mathematics and agriculture and to those of us he embraced as his family became part of his plan for departing from this phase of his life and entering the rest,” Mr. Hays said. “How far and wide his gifts will ripple over the years is beyond our ability to see.”
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays.