Jack Gsantner died alone, with no close family and only a few, mostly distant friends.
To neighbors, the 84-year-old former billing clerk was a recluse who drove old cars, drank cheap beer and kept his wife on a strict allowance.
Even a Florida cousin who tried to keep in touch said Gsantner would hang up when he called, or just not answer the phone.
But his modest home in Omaha’s Keystone neighborhood sheltered a secret.
When a funeral home director began digging into Gsantner’s finances in hopes of paying off a $3,100 cremation bill, he was shocked to find dozens of stock certificates and evidence that Gsantner had owned several rental properties.
All told, $5.28 million worth of assets were discovered, including a town house in Arizona, hefty savings accounts and stocks worth $300,000 and more.
“Good Lord,” said a neighbor, Alison Welty, when told of the wealth of the secret millionaire next door.
“He never dressed like he had a dime,” said another neighbor, Michael Hawley.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Thomas Thomsen, a Fremont, Nebraska, attorney who was appointed to represent Gsantner’s estate and was involved in a court fight over how much to pay the funeral home director who was appointed personal representative.
To those who knew Jack Gsantner in his younger years, he was a private guy who was tight with his money but could be friendly, and even generous.
From the 1940s and into the 1980s, Gsantner played bass in one of Omaha’s most popular dance bands, the Eddy Haddad Orchestra. His bandmates suspected he had inherited money, but also were surprised at his hidden wealth.
“We knew him because we worked with him,” said Subby Anzaldo, a former Omaha city councilman who also played in the Haddad band. “Other than that it was very difficult to get to know him.”
Gsantner’s parents were well-known. His father, Hayes, was a dentist whose office was near the family’s acreage at 76th and Pacific Streets. His mother, Olive, ran a dog kennel, Baybrook Kennels, at the acreage and, later, a flower nursery. It was a plot of land that eventually was sold for commercial development, which may have provided a nice nest egg for Gsantner, their only child.
Gsantner’s day job was as a clerk for the Union Pacific Railroad. He and his wife had no children.
According to one relative, Gsantner grew paranoid about his hidden riches as he grew older.
“The last six months, he was getting a little squirrelly,” said Charlie Kyes, a cousin from Safety Harbor, Florida. “I think the money went to his head.”
Gsantner died in February 2012, a month and three days after the death of his wife of 55 years, Marian. His body was in his home for several days before police were summoned.
Police found a jar with the cremated ashes of his wife inside the house. That led them to call the funeral home that had handled his wife’s services a month earlier.
Ryan Gray, manager of Braman Mortuary, said he could not locate any family members to pay Jack Gsantner’s funeral bill, so in hopes of getting paid, he applied to serve as a personal representative.
That’s not that unusual. In the absence of family, a county judge can appoint a creditor to settle an estate, said Thomsen, who is also the funeral home’s attorney.
But what was portrayed as a “simple” matter that involved an estate of perhaps $127,000 quickly turned into “a hornet’s nest,” according to Gray.
Inside Gsantner’s ranch-style home on Manderson Circle he found “tons and tons and tons” of stock certificates, as well as stacks of records piled to the ceiling that contained documents of past stock trades and rental home sales.
Numerous savings accounts eventually were located, including three at Omaha banks, each holding more than $100,000. There were also investments in nearly 80 companies and mutual funds, including Exxon Mobil, StockCross Financial Services, Black Hills Corp. and AT&T.
Gray said he found documents showing that Gsantner once owned 20 or more rental properties, and still owned a $115,000 town home in Pima County, Arizona.
“He obviously enjoyed finances,” Gray said. “He was a numbers guy.”
These days, having a $5 million estate isn’t as rare as it used to be, according to George Morgan, a former stockbroker who now teaches finance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“You would be surprised at the clients that I had who had two- to three- to four-million-dollar accounts,” Morgan said. “If you drove by their house or saw them walking down the street, you’d think they were just normal people.”
And, he added, there seems to be a culture of modesty about such wealth in Omaha. Morgan said the late construction magnate Peter Kiewit used to lecture employees against flaunting their wealth. And billionaire investor Warren Buffett is famous for his less-than-a-mansion home in Omaha, and his modest ways.
One relative said Gsantner was guarded about money because of his Depression-era childhood.
Tracking down his relatives proved a challenge. Only a few Christmas cards from relatives and family photos were found in the home. Neighbors knew little about him.
“He was very secretive. I don’t think he let anyone into his life,” Gray said. “If he had, they would have known about” his money.
There were some unusual finds in the home: 40 cases of inexpensive Red, White & Blue beer stacked inside the garage, and perhaps 600 rolls of toilet paper in the attic.
He owned six cars, but none was valued at more than $950. The newest was a 1994 Buick. It was also discovered that Gsantner was a Navy veteran of World War II and had graduated from Yale University in 1948.
A firm was hired to locate his heirs. About 10 months into the process, Gsantner’s will was found. Most of the heirs listed in the 18-year-old will had died, including a deceased couple from Tucson, Arizona — neighbors, perhaps, of Gsantner’s winter town home — who were supposed to receive the largest amount, 35 percent of the estate plus the Arizona town home. Instead, their children got hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
It took 18 months to sort out who should get Gsantner’s estate. Eventually, 24 heirs were identified. Gray estimated that he worked 500 hours on the case, including a four-day trip to Arizona to sell the town house.
His pay as personal representative led to a dispute that went to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Gray had requested 2.5 percent of the estate, or about $125,000. Five attorneys testified in support of Gray, saying the complexity of the case warranted the same amount as a bank trust department or lawyer would charge, which ranges from $150 per hour to $225 per hour.
But five of the heirs objected. Their attorney argued that the job was pretty straightforward and that as a “layperson,” Gray deserved far less: as little as $7,500, or about $15 to $25 an hour.
In a ruling on May 23, the court agreed with the decision by Douglas County Judge Lawrence Barrett to award Gray $25,000 for his work. Based on the approximately 400 hours he had worked at the time of the ruling, that amounted to about $62.50 per hour.
Thomsen, the attorney, said he was disappointed by the ruling. He said Gray deserved what professionals are paid, given the quality of his work.
Gray said he was only seeking what he thought was fair compensation for a job that Gsantner’s heirs, once located, weren’t interested in doing.
“Looking back on it, I probably wouldn’t have done it again,” Gray said.
The ruling clears the way for the final distribution of Gsantner’s estate, though less than $100,000 remains to be handed out.
Among the biggest winners are Douglas County taxpayers. Because Gsantner’s heirs were not children, a spouse or aunts or uncles, but distant cousins, the highest rates for state inheritance taxes applied: 13 percent to 18 percent. After expenses were deducted, the county received a check for $602,896.
So far, payouts to the heirs have ranged from $31,291 to $632,188 for a Chicago woman named in Gsantner’s original will who is to receive 15 percent of the estate after expenses.
Three recipients in Missouri, who Kyes said didn’t even know Gsantner, each received checks for $156,455.
Another recipient was Pat Hiatt of Frederick, Maryland, a cousin who lived for a short time with Gsantner and his parents at the Pacific Street home in the 1950s. He was willed the proceeds of Gsantner’s house, $101,000, plus $367,000 from the distribution of cash and stocks.
“Nobody really expected this,” said Hiatt, 72. “It’s a real blessing.”
Kyes, the cousin from Florida, said he might have been the only relative who had kept in touch with Gsantner in recent years.
He said that got more and more difficult as Gsantner got older: He would hang up abruptly when Kyes called. Gsantner rejected a suggestion that he invest in caller ID so he could tell if a relative or a telemarketer was calling, objecting to the expense.
“A lot of people didn’t understand him. He was always quiet, even as a kid,” Kyes said.
Yet, he said, Gsantner was so miserly he would send postcards instead of letters, to save on postage, and he would sneak his own cheap beer into restaurants to avoid paying for drinks.
But Kyes, a retired airline sales representative, said he’ll never forget his cousin. He spent $120,000 of the roughly $325,000 he inherited to buy a speedy new luxury car: a glacier-white Audi A8.
“I call it ‘Jack,’ ” he said.
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