When Barbara Bethards died last summer at 58, after a sudden illness, few people knew that she left Washington State University more than $2.5 million for science scholarships — a wonderful gift for outstanding students, and an anomaly in this era of big, showy donations to colleges that often have an indirect benefit, at best,...

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Barbara Bethards loved Christmas.

She’d gather gifts with personal touches. Items that reflected her friends’ pets, hobbies, passions. Charm bracelets. Pet photos. Cross-stitching. Bags filled with emblems of thoughtfulness.

“There would be 10 or 12 or 15 things in her gift bags, and they were very unique and just for you,” said Lori Freshman, a co-worker and one of Bethards’ best friends. “She always had a gift for every single person in the office.”

Bethards died last summer at 58, after a sudden illness, but news of one of her gifts just came to light this week when. Washington State University announced she quietly left the school more than $2.5 million for science scholarships. She also left a quarter-million for the Spokane Humane Society, where she was a longtime volunteer.

Friends say she always played things close to the vest — she was private and self-effacing, while being generous with her time and effort. “I had no idea she was interested in science,” said Jill Rasler, a friend and co-worker at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. “But then most of us who worked with her — people who worked with her for a long time — didn’t know she had a law degree. She just didn’t talk about it.”

Freshman, who knew Bethards for almost 30 years, said she was one of just a few people who knew Bethards had money. But even she was shocked when told about the size of the WSU donation.

“You would never known she had that kind of money … Nobody would have ever, ever, ever guessed that Barb was a multimillionaire.”

The money apparently came from an inheritance, investments and a frugal lifestyle. Her father had stipulated in his will that he wanted to support WSU scholarships.

Bethards grew up in Spokane, the only daughter of an ophthalmologist and pharmacist. She graduated from Shadle Park High, then earned an economics degree in 1974 at WSU. She went on to graduate from Gonzaga Law School, but a law career was not for her, Freshman said, and Bethards eventually trained herself in medical transcription. She worked as a transcriptionist at Sacred Heart for 30 years.

“She was a really smart gal,” Freshman said. “I don’t think she wanted the stress of a high-profile life. She could have been a CEO, but she chose a simpler life.”

She was devoted to her parents, her dogs and animal welfare, and to various crafting projects, from quilting to scrapbooking, friends say. She loved to travel, visiting China and Europe and making regular visits to Hawaii. She donated time and money to causes she believed in — primary among them was the Humane Society.

One day last summer, Bethards complained of not feeling well and left work early. Within a day, she was in intensive care in a coma, and she never recovered.

She died July 21.

WSU announced her gift Tuesday. While colleges routinely tout big donations, few of them are targeted solely for scholarships. Bethards’ gift will support Regents scholarships, which are used to entice outstanding Washington high-school students to stay in state for college.