HINSDALE, New Hampshire – Geoffrey Holt was humble as the manager of a mobile home park in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where he lived a simple but strange life.
Residents saw Holt driving around town in threadbare clothing – riding his lawnmower, heading to the supermarket, parking on the main street, reading a newspaper or watching cars drive by.
He did odd jobs for others but rarely left town. Although Holt had taught high school students how to drive, he had given up driving. Instead, he decided on a bicycle and finally the lawnmower. His mobile home in the park was mostly empty – no television or computer. The legs of the bed went through the floor.
“He seemed to have what he wanted, but he didn’t want much,” said Edwin “Smokey” Smith, Holt’s best friend and former employer.
But Holt died earlier this year with a secret: He was a multimillionaire. And what’s more, he gave everything away to this community of 4,200 people.
His will contained brief instructions: $3.8 million to the city of Hinsdale to help the community in the areas of education, health, recreation and culture.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea he was so successful,” said Steve Diorio, chairman of the city’s Board of Elections, who occasionally waved to Holt from his car. “I know he didn’t have much family, but it’s still a huge gift to leave to the city he lived in…”
The money could go a long way in this Connecticut River town that sits between Vermont and Massachusetts and has plenty of hiking, fishing, and small businesses. It is named for Ebenezer Hinsdale, an officer in the French and Indian War who built a fort and a gristmill. In addition to Hinsdale’s 1759 home, the town has the country’s oldest continuously operating post office, dating to 1816.
There has been no formal meeting to discuss ideas for the money since local officials were notified in September. Some residents have suggested upgrading the town hall clock, restoring buildings and perhaps purchasing a new ballot-counting machine in honor of Holt, who always made sure he voted. Another option is to set up online driver training.
Organizations could apply for grants through a New Hampshire Charitable Foundation trust and receive about $150,000 per year from the interest.
Hinsdale will “use the remaining money very sparingly, as Mr. Holt did,” said Kathryn Lynch, city manager.
Holt’s best friend Smith, a former state legislator who became executor of Holt’s estate, had learned of his fortune in recent years.
He knew that Holt, who died in June at age 82, had varied interests, such as collecting hundreds of model cars and train sets that filled his rooms, covered the couch and extended into a shed. He also collected books on history, with Henry Ford and World War II among his favorite subjects. Holt also had an extensive record collection, including Handel and Mozart.
Smith also knew that Holt, who had previously worked as a production manager at a flour mill in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, was investing his money. Holt found a quiet place to sit near a stream and study financial publications.
Holt confided to Smith that his investments were doing better than he ever expected and that he wasn’t sure what to do with the money. Smith suggested remembering the city.
“I was kind of stunned when I found out it all went to the city,” he said.
One of Holt’s first investments in a mutual fund was in communications, Smith said. This was before cell phones.
Holt’s sister, 81-year-old Alison Holt of Laguna Woods, Calif., said she knew her brother invested and remembered her father making it important not to waste money and invest.
“Geoffrey had a learning disability. He had dyslexia,” she said. “He was very smart in some ways. When it came to writing and spelling, he was hopeless. And my father was a professor. So I think Geoff felt like he was letting my dad down. But maybe he threw it all away. “Money was a way to assert himself.”
She and her brother grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her father, Lee Holt, taught English and world literature at the American International College. Her mother, Margaret Holt, had a Shakespeare scholar for a father. She was an artist who, according to her obituary, “imbibed the values of the Quaker Society of Friends.” Both parents were peace activists who eventually moved to Amherst and participated in a weekly vigil in the city focused on local and global issues of peace and justice.
Their children were well educated. Geoffrey attended boarding schools and attended the former Marlboro College in Vermont, where students had self-designed curricula. He graduated in 1963 and served in the U.S. Navy before earning a master’s degree in 1968 from the college where his father taught. In addition to driver’s training, he briefly taught social studies at Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, before getting his job at the mill.
Alison remembers her father reading them Russian novels before bed. Geoffrey could remember all the long names of several characters.
According to his sister, a retired librarian, he seemed to have picked up a side of his own upbringing that was strict and frugal. His parents had a vegetable garden, kept the thermostat low and accepted clothing for their children donated by a friend.
She said Geoffrey didn’t need much to be happy, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself and might have been afraid of moving. He once turned down a promotion at the factory that would have required him to move.
“He always told me that his main goal in life was to make sure no one noticed,” she said, adding that he would say, “otherwise you could get in trouble.”
They didn’t talk much about money, although he often asked her if she needed anything.
“I’m just so sad that he didn’t indulge himself a little bit,” she said.
But he never seemed to complain. He wasn’t always alone either. As a young man he was married briefly and divorced. Years later, he met a woman at the mobile home park and moved in with her. She died in 2017.
Neither Alison nor Geoffrey had children.
Holt suffered a stroke a few years ago and worked with therapist Jim Ferry, who described him as thoughtful, intellectual and gentlemanly, but not comfortable following the academic path that family members had taken.
Holt had mobility issues after his stroke and missed driving his lawnmower.
“I think for Geoff, mowing the lawn was a relaxation, it was a way for him to connect with nature,” Ferry said. “I think he saw it as a service to the people he cared about, namely the people in the trailer park, who I think he really liked because they weren’t fancy people.”
Residents hope the gift will bring even more attention to Hinsdale.
“It really is a forgotten corner of New Hampshire,” said Ann Diorio, who is married to Steve Diorio and sits on the local planning board. “Maybe it will make it a little better known.”