Richard A. Herman lived in the Watergate for more than 40 years and was a longtime patron of the arts, but the shy railroad heir was virtually unknown in Washington social circles for much of his long life.
Until this week.
Family Matters of Greater Washington is set to hold a splashy news conference Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce that Herman, who died in November at 100, left the organization 60 percent of his vast estate — $28 million, which the group says is one of the largest gifts ever to a local social service organization.
And the Kennedy Center said Tuesday that Herman left $15 million to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera — the largest bequest in the institution’s history.
As news of Herman’s gifts spread through the city’s society and philanthropic communities, many expressed surprise at his generosity and the fact that so few people had heard of him. He had given money to arts institutions such as the Corcoran Gallery and the Phillips Collection but had rarely appeared at glitzy balls or social events.
“He wasn’t in the ‘Personalities’ column, none of that stuff,” said his cousin, Betsy Paull, 62, of Northwest Washington. “He wasn’t a bon vivant. He enjoyed life . . . but it was very low-profile.”
Paull, who helped oversee Herman’s affairs in his last years, said he wrote his first check to Family Matters for $25 in 1967.
Over the years, Paull had occasionally prodded him to add a few more zeros to his modest donation because she knew of the nonprofit group’s work in helping teenage mothers and low-income seniors and sending disadvantaged kids to camp. But why — as someone who never had a family of his own or even displayed a special fondness for children — Herman chose to give such a large sum to Family Matters remains, like the man himself, a bit of a mystery.
Family Matters administrators knew they were named as beneficiaries of the estate but were unaware of the extent of the gift until trust officials contacted them after Herman’s death.
“I started crying. I dropped the phone, and I fell to my knees on the ground in my office,” said Tonya Jackson Smallwood, president and chief executive of the group, which is headquartered downtown. She said she left the trust officer on the line for a good five minutes as she tried to compose herself.
“I was crying in part because he had passed . . . and in part because I was aware he was leaving us something significant in his will,” she said.
The gift, which is more than twice the charity’s annual budget of $12.5 million, will have a major impact on its efforts to help the city’s neediest residents, Smallwood said. (The Washington Post Co. is a longtime supporter of the organization’s summer camp.) The group also plans to establish an arts program for youths and seniors in Herman’s name.
Herman’s roots in the community were probably deeper than those of many big donors, but his profile was considerably lower. For more than four decades, Herman led a life of modest anonymity in a two-bedroom co-op in the Watergate East building on Virginia Avenue.
He was born in 1912, grew up in Northwest and graduated from the District’s Central High School. He went off to study at the University of Pennsylvania and in 1938 was awarded a master’s degree in architecture.
He never had an architecture practice of his own, although he worked briefly for the War Department during World War II. He didn’t need to.
He had inherited a large sum from his father, Bernard, a Washington native himself, who had made his money in the Southern Railway system, working his way up from assistant engineer to the chief engineer in charge of building and maintenance of the 8,000-mile railway, then spread over 13 states. The elder Herman died in 1952.
Since then, Herman was content to live within his means and let his fortune grow, family members said.
He wore the same suits for years, traveled just a few times a year and never redecorated his apartment, which frayed a bit as the years went by. He had few indulgences, except for the occasional single daiquiri and a minor flirtation with a Corvette, which largely stayed in the Watergate’s parking garage.
He never married, and if there was love in his life, he never said so.
“People were more conservative than they are these days,” Paull said simply.
She added later: “He liked his quiet life without family complications.”
Herman spent much of his time attending theater, music and ballet performances at the Kennedy Center nearby, where he had season subscriptions to the symphony and the opera for years.
“It was a big part of his life. He loved music,” said Maya Weil, the center’s senior associate in planned giving. “I don’t think there are a lot of people in the building who knew him well. With turnover and the fact that he was so shy, he didn’t make his presence known a lot. But we know he’s been a patron and a donor since the beginning.”
His gift to the symphony and the opera — $7.5 million for each — will be used for their endowment funds, Weil said.
In the last two decades of his life, Herman’s trips across the street to the beloved performance hall slowed. Eventually, his health began to fail and he stopped leaving his co-op. He had outlived most of his friends and family members.
When he died Nov. 13, there was no one left to invite to a memorial service, Paull said. But Herman’s bequest will benefit the families of others far into the future, an irony not lost on his cousin.
“Maybe he appreciated the trials of others,” Paull speculated. “It’s almost as if he did appreciate the great fortune of his life and knew that with a stroke of a pen in his estate plan he could do something wonderful for people less fortunate.”
In lieu of a service, Paull, her 93-year-old father and a small group of friends went in December to the Kennedy Center, where, coincidentally, the symphony played Witold Lutoslawski’s “Musique funebre” and dedicated the concert in Herman’s honor. They shared a quick champagne toast in a private donor room during intermission, a quiet goodbye, exactly the way Herman would have wanted it.
Julie Tate contributed to this report