MarketInsight | The Wonderful World of Disney’s Maid
Walt Disney had a live-in maid. Her name was Thelma Howard. Reportedly, she made all of Walt’s meals and helped raise his two daughters. By all accounts, she was “a beloved member of the family.” Some say she was the inspiration for the 1960’s TV character, “Hazel.” Walt Disney called her a “real life Mary Poppins.”
Thelma Pearl Howard was born in Idaho in 1915. She grew up dirt poor. After dropping out of college due to a lack of money, she moved to Los Angeles. Thelma held down three jobs to make ends meet and then, in 1951, she got what must have seemed the opportunity of a lifetime. Walt Disney had a problem with his previous maid; she was a good enough cook, but was sort of mean to his children. So, he hired 36-year old Thelma Howard. Thelma moved into a mansion with a pool bigger than the house she grew up in.
For the next 30 years she took care of Walt and his family, making sure to keep plenty of hot dogs on hand. They were Walt’s favorite snack. Disney’s daughters recall sitting in the kitchen, with wondrous eyes, watching Thelma make dinner. Thelma was paid a modest salary for her endeavors and received free room and board in the house. The world would have long forgotten Thelma Howard, but for an odd turn of fate.
Every Christmas and on her birthday, Walt gave Thelma shares of Disney stock. Now, another housekeeper might have turned up her nose at the gift and maybe even gossiped to her friends that Walt was too cheap to give her cash. But Thelma Howard believed in Walt Disney. It is said they had an amazing rapport. So, she held her stock and let it grow. Eventually Thelma retired, as we all do. She lived out her life in a simple bungalow and then a modest nursing home. Disney’s daughter, Diane, visited her and sent her flowers.
When Thelma died in 1994, her family and friends, in fact the whole world, was stunned by the staggering fortune she had amassed. Thanks to numerous stock splits and the growth in the Disney brand name, she died holding 193,000 shares of Disney worth around $9.5 million. She left half of the money to her son and the other half to the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation, which supports disadvantaged youth in and around the County of Los Angeles.
Today that foundation is worth about $5.5 million and donates more than $400,000 per year to various charities. They have done what they were supposed to do. It is, however, intriguing to think what if they had done what Thelma did? Had they just held the stock and paid out the dividends, it would be worth more than $35 million today and the trust would be able to pay out more than $2 million a year. The moral of the story can be summed up in two words: buy and hold.
Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at email@example.com.