Professor Donald Othmer and his wife, Mildred, lived modestly. They had a townhouse in Brooklyn. They rode the subway. And when they decided to invest, they entrusted their money to an old friend from Nebraska.
The friend happened to be Wall Street whiz Warren Buffett.
The result, when the Othmers died, was an estate worth a whopping $800 million, one-quarter of which will go to Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, where Othmer taught for nearly 60 years.
His bequest of $190 million, about four times the school's entire endowment, could almost instantly lift Polytechnic into the most selective ranks.
"We're looking at this as a transforming gift," David C. Chang, president of Polytechnic, said Monday.
The school has about 2,000 students, many of them recent immigrants. Chang said he hopes the money will put the school in a league with such better-known engineering colleges as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Carnegie-Mellon University.
"Our mission in life is to provide an opportunity for students to fulfill the American dream," Chang said. "As a small rather than large school, we want to use this opportunity to see how well we can educate our students. I see only benefits coming out of this."
Othmer held numerous patents from his research in chemical engineering and was co-editor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. He died at age 91 in 1995.
Mrs. Othmer, who received a master's degree from Columbia University Teachers College in 1945, was a former buyer for her mother's fashion shops in Omaha. She died in April at age 90.
The couple had no children.
The Othmers' road to riches began in the 1960s, when they each invested just $25,000 with Buffett. In the early 1970s they received shares in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's investment and insurance holding company.
At the time, the shares were worth $42. Thanks to the booming stock market and Buffett's acumen, the stock now is worth $77,200 a share.
Other beneficiaries of the Othmers' estate are institutions the couple supported throughout their lives.
Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, where Othmer served as a board member, is set to receive $160 million; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, from which both graduated, is to get $140 million; and the Chemical Heritage Foundation of Philadelphia is to receive $125 million.
Planned Parenthood of New York City, on whose board Mrs. Othmer served, will receive about $75 million. The Brooklyn Historical Society was left $16 million and the Omaha Board of Education, $12 million.
Theodore R. Wagner, the lawyer who helped each draw up the couple's wills, said it will probably be months before legal challenges to the wills are settled. One of Mrs. Othmer's nieces, who is to receive less than $2 million, has said that her family deserves more.
Buffett, ranked by Forbes magazine as the world's thrd-richest man, with a fortune estimated at $33 billion, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In The New York Times, he described the Othmers as "high-quality, nice people, who had no children and wanted to translate their wealth into something beneficial to society."
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