When it became evident that Nelson Gipson’s cancer wasn’t going to allow him to live much longer, the 83-year-old Pleasant Hill, Mo., man sent for a lawyer.
His lifelong friend, Marcia McConville, was there, too.
“I had no idea what he wanted to do, but I was going to make darned sure it was going to get done,” McConville said.
As it turns out, the man who spent his whole life in the house where he was raised, the man who rarely spoke unless spoken to, the man who had dutifully played the organ each Sunday at St. Bridget Catholic Church for more than 50 years, had some money to give away. His estate was valued at about $1.7 million.
He’d never married, and had no close family members, so he elected to donate it.
Kansas University was one of the major beneficiaries, as Gipson left $800,000 for scholarship funds for his alma mater, where he studied finance and economics. He was very adamant, McConville recalled, that nothing be named after him.
Instead, the money will establish scholarships named for his grandparents, Samuel and Rosa Gipson, and his mother, Lelia Ima Gipson, with whom Gipson lived until she died.
He didn’t talk about KU much, McConville said, but that wasn’t all that surprising, because he didn’t talk about anything much.
“He was never a man who ever called attention to himself about anything,” McConville said.
It was a surprise for many that Gipson, who worked at the Social Security Administration in Kansas City, was able to accumulate that much wealth, said Robert Kennedy, curator of the Pleasant Hill Historical Society museum.
He lived a fairly austere life, and was a local property owner and landlord — and by most accounts, a good one, Kennedy said, charging reasonable rents and keeping his properties well maintained. He also was a shrewd investor.
Gipson remembered the historical society in his will, too, helping them far exceed the $200,000 they needed to raise in order to secure a $50,000 challenge grant.
He was always very interested in local history, particularly about Pleasant Hill’s black community, Kennedy said. Once, the National Trapshooting Hall of Fame called and said they were looking for the grave of an elite black trapshooter from around the turn of the century named Tobias H. Cohron, and believed it to be in Pleasant Hill.
Kennedy remembered how he searched the local cemeteries, and then figured he’d ask Gipson.
As it turned out, not only did Gipson know where the unmarked grave was, he’d been visiting it and placing flowers there every year since Cohron died in 1955.
Cohron was a friend of Gipson’s grandfather’s, Kennedy said, and Gipson figured that some folks just don’t have anyone to remember them. Shortly after the grave was located, Kennedy said a “big, beautiful headstone” was placed at the site.
“It’s a story of serendipity,” Kennedy said.
And now, the historical society’s museum will more than triple in size, thanks in large part to Gipson’s gift. Kennedy figures there will be “some kind of deal there” in Gipson’s honor. Maybe a library, he said, because he sure did seem to read a lot.
Gipson was always polite, and always answered questions if you asked, but never volunteered much information about his private life, recalled Tim Long, business manager at St. Bridget. Few photos of him existed, and some in the church said that he was like a ghost — no one ever saw him come or leave.
“He was a quiet and humble servant,” Long said.
The church, too, benefited from Gipson’s estate, which totaled around $1.7 million. He’d already donated more than $30,000 for a new organ. Msgr. Bradley Offutt, who was serving as a pastor at the time, recalled how Gipson reached in his pocket and without a word, wrote out a check for the entire amount.
Now, there’s a piano, too, dedicated to his memory at the church.
Offutt said Gipson’s life is a fascinating example of how actions speak louder than words. Most of the 300 families who attended the church held Gipson in high regard, even though most had never spoken a word to him.
“They could tell the kind of person he was,” Offutt said. “He was perhaps the most eloquent example of the power of humility I’ve ever seen.”
The scholarships that he set up are designed to benefit students in perpetuity.
“He took the cards that God gave him, origin, race, religion,” Offutt said. “And he did something very good with it.”