Thelma Pearl Howard, Walt Disney’s dedicated housekeeper, led a seemingly humble life. Known for her exceptional culinary skills, she catered to the Disney family for over three decades and helped raise Walt’s daughters, Diane and Sharon. Though her primary job was to maintain the household, she also played a key role during a time when the Disney empire expanded through the release of classic films like “Sleeping Beauty,” “Lady and the Tramp,” and “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” These box office hits helped solidify the company’s status as a powerhouse in the entertainment industry.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Thelma’s unassuming life had an unexpected twist when it was revealed after her passing that she was, in fact, a secret multi-millionaire. In addition to her modest salary from working for the wealthy and famous Walt Disney, she had amassed a fortune through a valuable stock portfolio. The most astonishing revelation was that Thelma chose to leave half of her impressive net worth to charity. This heartwarming story showcases the incredible journey of a hardworking housekeeper who not only helped shape the lives of the Disney family but also ensured her wealth would bring dreams to life for others.
Thelma’s Early Life
Thelma Pearl Howard was born in June 1915 in Southwick, Idaho, to a family of impoverished farmers. She was the second of five children, and her childhood was filled with hardship. At the age of six, she lost her mother due to childbirth complications, and two more siblings passed away before she turned 18.
Thelma’s determination led her to Spokane, Washington, to pursue college, but she was forced to drop out within a year due to financial constraints. Afterward, she relocated to Los Angeles and tirelessly worked three jobs to make ends meet. She found employment pouring drinks at a soda fountain, cleaning houses, and working part-time as a secretary. Despite her humble beginnings, Thelma’s journey would eventually lead her to Holmby Hills, California, where her life would take a remarkable turn.
Real Life Mary Poppins
In 1951, Thelma, aged 36, secured her dream job as a live-in housekeeper at Walt Disney’s luxurious estate in Holmby Hills, California. Coming from a humble background, she found herself in an 8-bedroom, 17-bathroom, 3.6-acre mansion, complete with a pool house larger than her family’s home in Idaho. The mansion also boasted a putting green, tennis court, swimming pool, library, and gym.
Before Thelma’s arrival, Walt Disney couldn’t find a housekeeper who connected well with his family. His previous housekeeper, although a good cook, had a difficult relationship with his daughters. She had gone as far as banning them from the kitchen and making them stay in their rooms while she cleaned the house.
In contrast, Thelma loved spending time with the Disney girls, Diane and Sharon, and enjoyed their company while preparing delicious three-course dinners. As Thelma cooked, the girls would watch in awe from the kitchen counter. She also made sure to always have Walt’s favorite snack, hot dogs, available for him to enjoy before dinner. Thelma’s warmth and love eventually earned her a spot as part of the Disney family.
Thelma’s role at the Disney estate extended beyond just housekeeping. Known for her efficiency and attention to detail, she also took on part-time duties as a secretary for the family. Her multi-faceted career helped her form a strong bond with the Disneys.
Walt Disney himself fondly referred to Thelma as the “real-life Mary Poppins” due to her magical impact on the family’s lives. The dedication, care, and love Thelma exhibited made her an indispensable and beloved member of the Disney household.
During her three-decade employment with the Disney family, Thelma’s compensation went beyond the typical housekeeper’s salary. In addition to her wage, she received free accommodation, allowing her to save more.
However, her true financial advantage came from a special gift she received twice a year from Walt Disney himself. Every Christmas and birthday, Thelma was gifted Disney stock shares as a bonus. As the Disney empire grew, so did the number of shares she owned. Driven by her admiration for Walt, Thelma never sold any shares throughout her life, even purchasing more with her own savings. This unique perk eventually became the key to her unanticipated fortune.
Thelma’s Stock Portfolio
Throughout the years, Thelma’s collection of Disney shares gradually increased, growing from a modest number to an impressive amount. As Disney expanded during 1945-1965, her investment began to gain significant value. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 and subsequent creation of popular movies like “Lady and the Tramp” and “Mary Poppins” further propelled Disney’s success and stock price.
Thelma gained a larger number of shares due to the annual gifts she received and the company’s multiple stock splits. By the time she passed away in 1994, Thelma had accumulated an astounding 193,000 shares of Disney stock. The value of these shares, not even considering the quarterly dividends, had reached a substantial amount.
|Impact on Thelma’s Portfolio
|Grew over time, increasing value
|Augmented the number of shares owned
|Provided additional income
Thelma’s investment decisions proved to be effective strategies as her Disney stock holdings multiplied, demonstrating the power of long-term belief in a company’s potential and the importance of wise investment choices.
Thelma Howard, Walt Disney’s housekeeper, left a staggering $9.5 million estate upon her death. In today’s value, this translates to approximately $20 million after inflation adjustment.
Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation
Thelma Pearl Howard, once a housekeeper for Walt Disney, left half of her fortune to establish a charitable foundation focused on helping disadvantaged children and promoting arts education. The Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation has since donated millions of dollars to various charities over the past 20 years.
Though she lived a modest life after retiring in 1981, Thelma passed away as a multi-millionaire. Her wealth was largely due to the Disney shares she owned. Alongside donating half of her fortune for philanthropic purposes, she also left the remaining half to her adult son, who had developmental disabilities.
The foundation’s primary focus has been to provide resources to support children in need and offer them access to arts education. Thelma’s own challenging childhood inspired her to make a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable kids through the work of her foundation.
Interestingly, if her original shares remained in trust and were never sold, they would have tripled from 193,000 shares to a total of 579,000 shares, thanks to a 3-1 split that occurred in June 1998. With a recent Disney stock price of $130, her 579,000 shares would now be worth an astonishing $75 million.
Even though Disney had not paid dividends in more recent quarters, in 2019 it paid a combined calendar dividend of $1.76 per share. This would have equated to an impressive $971,000 in cash dividends for Thelma’s shares. A remarkable outcome for a humble housekeeper from Idaho.