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Teacher’s lasting lesson: Give back to community

– Ann Christopher says she feels a little like Santa Claus, handing out all this money so close to Christmas. Some charities have been stunned by the amounts. Frankly, so has she.

“She was never somebody who wanted attention,” Christopher said of the woman whose money she’s giving away. “She was very down-to-earth, very polite.”

She also was worth more than a lot of people knew. When retired schoolteacher Zelma Thatcher died last year at age 95, she left behind a small fortune to her family, friends and – as they’re finding out – local charities.

By year’s end, Christopher, a longtime friend of Thatcher’s, will have sent more than $700,000 to five organizations in Ross, Delaware and Franklin counties.

The amount is staggering to the Ross County Humane Society, which was overjoyed by a recent $2,500 donation from a poker run. Thatcher’s gift will be more than 100 times that amount – and slightly less than the organization’s annual budget.

“If you had moved the decimal (back) one space, we would have been thrilled,” said Cindy Adkins, president of the Humane Society board.

Friends say Thatcher was the kind of woman who would spend her morning elbows-deep in the soil of her organic garden before heading inside for lunch on white linens and fine china. She drove a stick shift well into her 80s. She preferred history books to television. She found a best friend in a dog named Eve.

Thatcher was born in 1916 in Ross County. She died last year in Dublin, having outlived her two brothers and a sister. In between, she married Thomas J. Thatcher, who worked for the gas company, and taught third grade, wrapping up her career at Ervin Carlisle Elementary School in Delaware. Thatcher used to carpool there with her young co-workers.

“I don’t know how she stood us, but she did,” said Christopher, who was a first-year teacher when she met Thatcher in 1971 and now works in Olentangy schools.

Thatcher was a strict teacher, Christopher said, but she also had a soft side. She loved animals and children, the latter of which she was unable to have. She railed against pesticides and was an early advocate of composting and recycling.

“To look at nature and connect with nature, to her that was her religion,” said Marsha McEvoy, a Lewis Center resident who met Thatcher when Thatcher moved from Columbus back to Ross County two decades ago. She didn’t spend much when she didn’t have to. After she built a log cabin in the Hocking Hills, friends had to persuade her to install electricity and plumbing, McEvoy said. She was in her 80s and a widow at the time. And she was still driving that manual Toyota RAV4.

A series of strokes eventually slowed Thatcher. She ended up in a nursing home in Dublin, where she died on May 25, 2011.

As Thatcher had requested, Christopher took in Eve, a kind German shepherd, and sorted out her friend’s estate.

Eventually, she reached the point where she could share some good news with five groups: In Ross County, the Community United Methodist Church would get $50,000, and the Friends of the Lucy Hayes Heritage Center, the restored birthplace of the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, would receive $25,000. The humane society there would receive $312,000, the same amount that would go to the Delaware County Humane Society. The Worthington Historical Society would get $25,000.

In a way, it was a final gift from a dear friend – the chance to surprise folks with some big checks. As executor of Thatcher’s estate, Christopher has been having a ball.

“Oh, I love it,” she said. “It’s the best part of my job.”