If you do a online search for Helen King, you will probably have to dig deep to find her — at least the one from Preble County who died in the early 1970s. And her obituary doesn’t shed much light on her accomplishment either. It simply says she is survived by three nieces, three nephews, five grand nieces and one grand nephew.
Despite the short, to-the-point obituary, at the time of her death Helen King gave the largest donation ever received by Ohio Northern University — $1.8 million dollars. The funds were used to build the King Horn Sports Center, a state-of-the-art facility which opened during the 1974-1975 academic school year.
In a 1972 article from The Register-Herald, which describes Helen as a recluse, one gets a small glimpse of her life. An administrator at a Dayton, Ohio nursing home she last lived in described Helen as,
“a dear soul but not a warm person….She kept to herself in the room, had few visitors, and read stock market literature.”
Despite the misgivings about her personality, when she died her estate was appraised at $1.9 million. The bulk of her money, it appears, was created through frugal living and smart investments. Appraisers said King acquired her fortune ‘gradually over the years, helped out by inheritances,’ but also noted she was something of a hoarder. In fact,
“Appraisers going through the house found some $1,500 hidden away in the small towels.”
Of course, the real question is where did Helen get the seed money to grow into such a large fortune — especially in a town the size of Eaton.
Well, it began with her late husband, Jesse, who died in 1943, nearly three decades before Helen passed away.
Jesse King was an electrical refrigeration engineer at Frigidaire in Dayton with more than 90 patents. When he first started in the business, the Pyrmont-born (Montgomery County) man was a close associate of Charles Kettering (who invented the electric car starter). After King retired from Frigidaire in 1938 he went into the real estate business. At the time of his death, his assets were valued at just under $250,000.
Helen — still in her mid-40s when her husband died — grew that nest egg to nearly $2 million.
Although she left some money to her nieces and nephews, since she had no children, their was no one ‘next-in-line’ to bequeath the wealth to, so she chose to donate all but $100,000 to a university that neither her or her husband had attended.
So what was her connection to the college? Her brother, Fred Horn, graduated from the school in 1911.
According to the Ohio Northern website (pdf) once the money was received the school moved quickly on the project.
Ground was broken for the project on April 1, 1973, and the cornerstone was laid on July 12th. By September 1974 King-Horn was open for classes with the formal dedication being held on February 7, 1975.
When it was completed, King-Horn cost roughly $2.3 million. It featured a 3,200 seat arena, a 6-lane swimming pool, 3 handball courts, a 110-yard jogging track, a wrestling room, dance studio, weight-lifting room, fencing,, shuffle board and ping pong areas, 3 classrooms, offices, study areas, training room, sauna and locker rooms.
The building was renovated in 1991 and 1996. The center also hosted the 1995, 1999 and 2002 NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships and the 1997, 2000 and 2003 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships.
Americans Who Got It Right
This post is part of an ongoing series that focuses on the various men and women through American history — and from all walks of life — who bucked the trend, thought for themselves and, in general, possessed that very American ideal of individualism. You can read previous entries here.