HINSDALE, NH – Geoffrey Holt was a modest caretaker at a trailer park in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where he lived a simple but curious life.
Residents would see Holt around town in shabby clothes – riding his lawnmower, going to the convenience store, parked on the main road reading a newspaper or watching cars pass by.
He did odd jobs for other people but rarely left town. Despite teaching driver’s education to high school students, Holt gave up driving. He opted for a bicycle and finally the lawnmower. His mobile home in the park was almost bare of furniture – no TV and no computer either. The legs of the bed crossed the floor.
“He seemed to have what he wanted, but he didn’t want it very 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. What’s more, he gave everything to this community of 4,200 people.
His will contained brief instructions: $3.8 million to the city of Hinsdale to benefit 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, the city council president who occasionally waved to Holt from his car. “I know he didn’t have much of a family, but still, leaving this to the town where he lived… It’s a tremendous gift.”
Money could go a long way in this Connecticut River town, sandwiched between Vermont and Massachusetts, with countless hiking and fishing opportunities and small businesses. It is named after Ebenezer Hinsdale, an officer in the French and Indian Wars who built a fort and grist mill. In addition to the Hinsdale House, built in 1759, the town has the oldest continuously operating post office in the country, dating back to 1816.
There have been no formal meetings to discuss ideas for the money since local officials were notified in September. Some residents have proposed updating the city hall clock, restoring buildings, perhaps buying a new vote-counting machine in honor of Holt, who always made a point of voting. Another possibility is to create an online driver training course.
Organizations could apply for grants through a trust fund through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, taking about $150,000 out of interest annually.
Hinsdale “will use the remaining money very frugally, as Mr. Holt did,” said city administrator Kathryn Lynch.
Holt’s best friend, Smith, a former state legislator who became the executor of Holt’s estate, 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 trains that filled his bedrooms, covered his 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 grain mill that closed in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont, invested his money. Holt would find a quiet place to sit by a stream and study financial publications.
Holt confided in Smith that his investments were doing better than he expected and he didn’t know what to do with the money. Smith suggested he remember the town.
“I was kind of stunned when I found out this whole thing went to the city,” he said.
One of Holt’s first mutual fund investments was in communications, Smith said. This was before cell phones.
Holt’s sister, Alison Holt, 81, of Laguna Woods, Calif., said she knew her brother invested and remembered that not wasting money and investing was important to her father.
“Geoffrey had a learning disability. He had dyslexia,” she said. “He was very intelligent in certain ways. When it came to writing or spelling, he was a lost cause. And my father was a teacher. So I think Geoff felt like he was letting my dad down. But maybe spending all that money was a way to compete.”
She and her brother grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their father, Lee Holt, taught English and world literature at American International College. Their mother, Margaret Holt, had a Shakespeare scholar for a father. She was an artist who “absorbed the values of the Quaker Society of Friends,” according to her obituary. Both parents were peace activists who eventually moved to Amherst and participated in a weekly vigil in the city that addressed local and global issues of peace and justice.
His children were well educated. Geoffrey attended boarding schools and attended the former Marlboro College in Vermont, where students had degree plans of their own design. He graduated in 1963 and served in the U.S. Navy before earning a master’s degree from the college where his father taught in 1968. In addition to driver’s education, he briefly taught social studies at Thayer High School in Winchester, New Hampshire, before earning his job. at the mill.
Alison remembers her father reading Russian novels to them at bedtime. Geoffrey could remember all those long names of various characters.
He seemed to borrow a page from his own upbringing, which was strict and frugal, according to his sister, a retired librarian. His parents had a vegetable garden, kept the thermostat low and accepted clothes donated to their children by a friend.
She said Geoffrey didn’t need much to be happy, didn’t want to draw attention to himself and was perhaps afraid of moving away. He once turned down a factory promotion that would have required him to move.
“He always told me that his main goal in life was to make sure no one noticed anything,” she said, adding that he would say “or you could get in trouble.”
They didn’t talk much about money, although he often asked if she needed anything.
“I’m so sad that he didn’t turn himself in at all,” she said.
But he never seemed to complain. He was also always not alone. As a young man, he was briefly married and divorced. Years later, he approached a woman in the trailer 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 caring, intellectual and kind, but not comfortable following the academic path that family members followed.
Holt developed mobility issues after the stroke and missed riding the mower.
“I think for Geoff, mowing the lawn was relaxing, it was a way for him to connect with the outdoors,” Ferry said. “I think he saw it as a service to the people he liked, which were the people in the trailer park who I think he really liked because they weren’t sophisticated people.”
Residents hope Hinsdale gets a little more noticed because of the gift.
“It’s actually a forgotten corner of New Hampshire,” said Ann Diorio, who is married to Steve Diorio and serves on the local planning board. “So maybe this puts it on the map a little bit.”