Investing at 97

Secrets of the rich and focused.

Summary: The image we have of the rich does not always match reality. One 97-year-old investor and former nurse has amassed a substantial portfolio through hard work, frugality and well balanced investing. She has now given away some $US3 million.
Key take-out: Consider holding on to stocks in both up and down cycles - and learn how to use money so it outlasts you.
Key beneficiaries: General investors. Category: Economics and investment strategy.

Our image of who is rich is often at odds with reality. ­Consider Stephanie T Mucha, 97, who remembers the 1929 stock market crash. The Buffalo, NY resident worked as a licensed practical nurse for more than four decades, and has parlayed her humble earnings into a Penta-size portfolio. In recent years, she has given away $US3 million - and she still has $US2.5 million left. Her goal: to give away a total of $US6 million before she dies.

Mucha was no debutante. She dropped out of high school and worked as a maid, helping her parents hold on to their house during the Great Depression. Later, she worked for 44 years at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where she was one of 100 civilians to receive the Purple Heart. Mucha earned $US23,000 a year when she retired in 1994.

Graph for Investing at 97

Stephanie Mucha, age 97

When she was 25, her father, afraid she’d be an old maid, matched her up with Joseph Mucha, a machinist 26 years her senior who emigrated from Poland at age 18. Joseph earned $US6,000 a year when he retired around 1958. By the time he passed away in 1985, the couple’s portfolio was worth roughly $US300,000.

The Muchas invested without the help of Wall Street. A broker advised the Muchas to sell their Intel shares, sometime after the company went public in the 1970s, and, after that, they ignored his advice. But gifted investors, always on the lookout for ideas, often make their own luck. Mucha was working in the VA hospital when Wilson Greatbatch, a local inventor, implanted a pacemaker in a dying dog. In about 10 minutes, the dog’s tail started to wag; a little later, it sat up and walked around.

“I came home and said to my husband, ‘I saw a dead dog come to life.’ ” What she had seen was a demonstration of the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. The device was licensed in 1961 to Medtronic. In around 1964, the Muchas spent $US255.50 to purchase 50 shares at $US5.11. By the time she donated a portion of the shares in 2007, the position had grown to $US459,000. She still owns about 300 shares, at $US66.

Hard work and frugality also contributed to the Muchas’ success. They created three apartments in their house, one to live in and two to rent out. The Muchas, who weren’t able to have children, owned only one car. After her husband’s death, Mucha sold her diamond ring and wedding band for $US2,700, investing the proceeds. She also rented out a room in her apartment for $US15 a night to women visiting their sick husbands at the VA hospital. She invested the estimated $US25,000 she earned over 20 years from that rental in the market.

A fan of Jeremy Siegel’s book, Stocks for the Long Run, she held on to her stocks in both up and down cycles. She also ­realized that women tend to outlive men, so they need to know how to invest. “Women need to learn how to use their money so it outlasts them.” She waited until she was 70 to start collecting Social Security, and now collects about $US40,000 a year from Social Security and her VA pension, plus $US675 a month from a renter.

Mucha doesn’t have a computer. She has an Ameritrade ­account that gives her free trades over the phone, reinvests her ­dividends, and sends her five ­research reports a month. She reads The Wall Street Journal ­every day, along with Barron’s, Forbes, The Economist, and The New York Times, and watches CNBC and Bloomberg. As for picking stocks, she recalls her husband saying, “You can’t build without nuts and bolts.” With that in mind, in recent years she has bought Precision Castparts, Snap-On Tools and Illinois Tool Works.

Age has caught up with her a bit, but it hasn’t dimmed her wits. Mucha’s portfolio made 11% last year, but when she learned her accountant’s portfolio made 36%, she gave his financial advisor a call. “I wanted to see if I was doing the right things,” she says. Larry Stolzenburg of Sandhill Investment Management in Buffalo now manages her portfolio. “Stephanie’s portfolio was one of the best I’ve seen,” he says. “It was well balanced and thought out. I almost offered her a job.”

Mucha, who never spent a dime of her investment capital, has put $US1 million in trust each for the Kosciuszko Foundation, which helped her husband when he immigrated to the US; the University at Buffalo’s School of Arts and Sciences, because it has a Polish studies program; and the School of Engineering, as her husband had wanted to be an engineer. This month, she plans to make a ­donation to the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She has also earmarked money for the schools of nursing and dentistry.

“She’s a fantastic, smart person,” says Alex Storozynski, president emeritus and a trustee of the Kosciuszko Foundation. In ­addition to the $US1 million donation, Storozynski says she has given him ­dietary tips, like eating chia seeds and almond butter. Advice to live by, no doubt.

This article has been reproduced with permission from Barron's.

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