If she were alive today, Eva Gordon would be a “little annoyed” to see her name in print, according to her godson. Those who knew her say she liked to keep her financial affairs private — at times, even from her husband.
“Believe me, nobody around her knew what she had,” said Gordon’s godson John Jacobs, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley in Seattle.
In 2018, Gordon died at 105. But now, some of her secrets are out. This week, her estate announced her wish to give $10 million to 17 community colleges across Washington.
Where did the wealth come from? Hard work, thriftiness and smart investing throughout her life, Jacobs said.
About half the state’s community and technical colleges will share in the gift; each will receive about $550,000. Gordon’s bequest is among the largest donations the state’s community colleges have received, officials said.
“Seattle Colleges Foundation is extremely thankful for this very generous gift,” Keith Schreiber said in an email. Schreiber is board chair of the Seattle Colleges Foundation, which oversees fundraising for Seattle Colleges.
Gordon grew up on an orchard in Eugene, Oregon. She never went to college, but she would have liked to, Jacobs said. When she came of age during The Great Depression, many families struggled to afford higher education.
At some point after high school, she moved to Seattle, where she met Jacobs’ mother; the pair were roommates in a boarding house in Capitol Hill, Jacobs said.
Gordon worked as a trading assistant at an investment firm in Seattle, and put away money she earned bit by bit. Early in her career, she bought partial shares in oil companies and other industries; when Nordstrom went public, Jacobs said, Mrs. Gordon was one of the earliest investors. She also invested in Seattle utility companies, Jacobs said.
In 1964, when she was in her 50s, she married Ed Gordon, a Navy pilot-turned-stockbroker. The couple didn’t have children of their own, but Jacobs said his family spent Christmases with the Gordons, and that he always thought of them as family.
Gordon was discreet about her wealth: Jacobs says he remembers her as “a very classy lady” who would dress well, but drive older cars. And she and her husband kept separate bank accounts, he said. “Even in her older age, as she needed assistance, she was really feisty and very resourceful.”
By their later years together, the Gordons had amassed a small fortune. And they began giving their time and money. In her 70s and 80s, Eva Gordon would volunteer at a senior service center, and, “in her words, ‘help out the old people,’ ” Jacobs said. The Gordons, longtime East Queen Anne residents, shared a commitment to higher education and made several donations to South Seattle College. Ed Gordon died in 2008 and left more than $3 million to that school, Jacobs said.
For community college students across Washington, the bequest will translate to scholarships and other support. Shoreline Community College’s foundation, for instance, will invest its portion in an endowment dedicated to scholarships for new students, said Mary Brueggeman, vice president of advancement. Many of the college’s existing scholarships are for students with at least one semester under their belt, she said. But first-time students often have great financial need, too.
“We’re going to call it the Eva C. Gordon Memorial Scholarship,” she said. “[Gordon] saw the value in community colleges and how a student could come into a community college and actually transform their lives.”
The donation follows a string of policy moves to make college more affordable for Washingtonians. In 2018, Seattle residents voted to give many of the city’s public high school graduates two years of community college tuition-free. This fall, the effort was expanded to all public high school graduates in Seattle. A state law approved this year allows median and low-income families to go to the state’s two- or four-year colleges for free or for a reduced price.
At Tacoma Community College, Gordon’s donation might be used for scholarships, or to support students who don’t have stable housing, said Bill Ryberg, vice president for college advancement. More than 50% of the college’s students require some financial support, he said.
“Their original intent was exactly that, to leave everything to charity,” Jacobs said. “She didn’t want to put her name in lights.”