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Humble-living Connecticut woman surprises town with millions from will

A long-retired first-grade teacher who died a couple of years ago in Simsbury, Conn., lived very simply and wasn't aware of how many riches she had – not until her lawyer discovered she was wealthy. Really, really wealthy. NBC's Harry Smith reports.

Kathleen Magowan lived a frugal life with her twin brother, Robert, in the classic New England town of Simsbury, Conn., until she died in 2011 at age 87, remembered mainly for the 35 years she was a first-grade teacher in the local elementary schools.

But now the town of 23,000 people is buzzing with the news that Magowan had a secret. A big one.

A $6 million one.

Nobody knew Kathleen Magowan was a multimillionaire until her will was finally untangled last month. That's when more than a dozen local institutions discovered they'd been left tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes hundreds of thousands — from her estate.

"Shock. Just shock." That was the reaction of Tara Donohue Willerup, a member of the Simsbury Board of Education, which Magowan left $480,000.

"She's exactly what you'd expect from first grade, you know — she loved the little kids," Willerup said. "That was where she really put her energies, because she built a foundation for them for their education for the rest of their lives."

When Kathleen Magowan asked her lawyer to help her arrange her will, both were shocked to learn that she was worth $6 million. But the biggest surprise was that felt by the neighbors and local charities who received it.

But almost a half-million dollars' worth?

"She was quiet, and you just couldn't believe that she'd have that kind of money to give," Willerup said.

That could be because Magowan herself probably couldn't believe it. Until the end, "she thought she had at that time approximately $40,000," said Lou George, a lawyer whom she asked to help settle her affairs.

As George looked into Magowan's finaces, he found blue-chip stocks like General Motors and General Electric — stocks that kept growing and growing and growing as her family held on to it for more than 50 years. 

He found accounts with multiple financial institutions.

He found life insurance policies. 

And he found a Quaker Oats box. It was stuffed with war bonds — mostly for $20 and $50 — dating to the 1940s.

"It did not look like a lot of money," George said. But it had been accumulating interest for more than a half-century — so much interest that the paper in the little Quaker Oats box was worth $183,000.

The Magowan twins' father, William, did very well as chief financial officer for an explosives company. They lived modestly and without dependents — neither ever married — and over the decades, they barely touched their inheritance, which Robert managed. In addition to Kathleen's $6 million estate, Robert left almost $4 million more when he died in 2010 at age 85.

"Money was not a priority to her," George said, and once Magowan learned how much she was worth, she was determined to give back "to the organizations and individuals who had helped her along the way or touched her life in some way."

One of those institutions is St. Mary's Catholic Church, whose priest, the Rev. Frank Matera, assumed the pulpit only last year. He'd never even heard of Kathleen Magowan until he was told his parish was getting $374,000 from her estate.

"When I heard that amount, I was just — I was literally astounded," Matera said. "I've never received a gift that large, and very rarely do parishes get a gift that size."

The bequest was "pure grace," he said: "We have to do some kind of building in the future, and this give us the basic start that we will need."

George said Magowan gave him a handwritten piece of paper with directions to distribute her estate. The University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, where she graduated in 1947, got more than $500,000. Her nursing home got $419,000.

And it might not stop there. Just recently, George found a check from Prudential for an account he hadn't previously known about.

So he called the company. It turns out, he said, that "there's an account out there with stock in it that's valued at over $90,000." 

Jane Derenowski of NBC News contributed to this report.