The woman behind the mysterious donations

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07/25/2014 10:00 AM |

Shortly before last month’s vote on a resolution to accept a $150,000 bequest from the estate of Helen Chalmers, Greenport School District Superintendent Michael Comanda asked the Board of Education if anyone knew of the recently deceased Orient resident.

No hands were raised.

Ms. Chalmers, who died last fall at 82, didn’t have children who attended school in the district. In fact, she never had any children. No close family, either. 

So when it came time to plan her estate, Ms. Chalmers, who lived a modest, working-class lifestyle but managed to save enough cash to leave the world as a philanthropist, decided everything she owned should go back to the community.

In addition to Greenport’s windfall, Oysterponds School District, Eastern Long Island Hospital and St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport each received $10,000.

Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport and the Orient Fire Department received $5,000 each. So did the woman who delivered Ms. Chalmers’ mail.

Helen Chalmers in 1996.

Helen Chalmers in 1996.

She also left $2,000 to the Rev. Garret Johnson of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport.

One thing almost all the individuals who run these organizations have in common is that they never met their benefactor.

At the June school board meeting, Mr. Comanda said he was desperately trying to find a member of Ms. Chalmers’ family so he could send a thank-you note for the bequest, which will be used to fund a scholarship in memory of Ms. Chalmers and her husband, Edward.

But there’s no one to send the note to, according to attorney Kyle Lynch of the Bainton Lynch law firm in East Hampton, which is handling Ms. Chalmers’ legal affairs.

The Orient woman’s few associates say she was a private person who had lived largely in isolation since her husband’s death in 2008. Mr. Chalmers was visiting his native Scotland when he died of a brain aneurysm.

Ms. Chalmers, whose only living relatives reside down South or outside the country, was alone at her home on Ryder Farm Lane when she tripped down a flight of stairs and died. Her body was discovered by police several days later, her attorney said.

“She lost her life partner and then just kinda shut down,” Mr. Lynch said. “[This was] the way she wanted to distribute the money she had. She knew she couldn’t take it with her.”

Born Helen Theresa McKenzie in Montreal, Ms. Chalmers first came to the U.S. as a child when her family settled in the Midwest. When she was a teenager, the family moved to Locust Valley, where she met her future husband. They married in 1960.

For much of her adult life, Ms. Chalmers worked as a cook for a wealthy banker and his wife on their estate in Oyster Bay, where she and her husband lived rent-free above the 10-car garage. Mr. Chalmers worked on the printing press at Newsday.

Mr. Lynch’s grandfather, Thomas, was an accountant who handled financial affairs for all employees of the estate.

“Her husband made good money with Newsday and they didn’t have any real expenses,” said James Lynch, Kyle’s father, who preceded his son as the Chalmers’ attorney. “Everything was taken care of by the [employer] … she accumulated a lot of money and Eddie had no expenses.”