Frank Washburn led a quiet life while working in the auto repair business, dabbling in real estate, playing weekly poker games and taking occasional fishing trips to Alaska and Canada.
Few knew that he was the millionaire who lived next door.
On Thursday, more than $500,000 from Washburn's estate was distributed to local nonprofits, the first of three distributions that will eventually surpass $1 million and impact everyone from the youngest Boy Scouts in Rapid City to seniors receiving Meals on Wheels.
Washburn, who died Jan. 8 in Orlando, Fla., at age 85, decided early in life that he never wanted to be poor.
Born Aug. 4, 1928, in Rapid City to George and Nellie Washburn, he was three years old when his mother died, leaving him and his sister, Frances, to be raised by their grandparents.
“His father was not attentive to him,” Washburn’s widow, Norma, said Thursday. “He had decided very young that he was not going to be poor and he talked to a businessman in town who told him, if you can make money while you sleep, you’ll be a rich man.”
At age 10, he began working as a paper boy for the Rapid City Journal. Always business-minded, Washburn contracted his route out to other boys and paid them from his profits. He even rented his bike when they asked, according to his obituary.
After graduating in 1946 from Rapid City High School, Washburn spent a year in the Marine Corps before traveling to Chicago to work at the Studebaker car factory.
When the company went on strike, he ventured to New Orleans and found work there. Later, he and a friend made their way to Arizona, where they contracted with a local shop to print coupon books they could sell. They recruited college girls to sell them and Washburn married one of them in a union that would last about 15 years. From his earnings, Washburn squirreled away enough money to buy a car and return to Rapid City.
After working at the Chevy Body Shop downtown, he partnered with Rapid City entrepreneur Mark Mollers to start the Collision Center.
“I worked with him through the years and he was always concerned about the people who worked for him,” Mollers said Thursday from Naples, Fla. “I know he helped some guys with addiction problems, because Frank was a very generous and kind individual.”
That long-time relationship led Washburn to partner with Mollers, Dean Kurtz and Gil Moyle Sr. in buying Deadwood’s old Chevrolet garage on Main Street shortly after legalized gaming came to town in 1989. The partners converted that ramshackle building into the Four Aces Casino and later they built the adjacent Hampton Inn.
“Frank was a good business partner, but his reaction time was slow and I’m being kind,” Mollers reminisced. “He was one of the key guys to make the decision about the hotel, which took him a year and a half to make.”
Mike Rodman, now head of the Deadwood Gaming Association, managed the Deadwood casino and said what impressed him most about Washburn was his genuine concern for his employees.
“Frank was always concerned about people and his employees,” Rodman said. “He would always walk up to an employee, shake their hand and say, `I’m glad you’re here.’ He wanted others to succeed as he had and he was so gracious."
While dabbling in Deadwood gaming, Washburn also concentrated on building his real estate holdings in Rapid City, eventually amassing more than 20 buildings, including apartments, businesses, warehouses and other commercial parcels.
A new love
After being single for decades, it was in the early 2000s when Washburn ran into Norma Bearden, whom he had known in high school but had not seen in more than 40 years.
“I was in Rapid City for a reunion, and we happened to bump into each other,” Norma fondly recalled this week. “My first husband had passed away and when I returned to Deadwood for the Days of ’76, we got to visiting, then corresponding. Eventually, I sold my house in California and moved back here and in July 2003 we were married.”
She said what she loved most about her husband was his caring nature, his penchant for saving money and his willingness to help those less fortunate.
“Second marriages are always different than the first, a more subtle romance,” Norma said. “I think we had a good relationship. Frank was ready for someone he could take places and do things with. We both were fond of the outdoors and we went fishing and liked to travel. I will miss that very much."
That unpretentious, frugal yet generous nature will be sorely missed, Washburn’s widow and friends said.
“He was interested in making sure people renting from him got a fair shake,” Norma said. “He was involved in a little bit of everything, but never wanted to be out front. He was proud of what he was making, but he didn’t show it off and tell of it. He was just a quiet, helping person.”
A lasting legacy
For accountant Paul Thorstenson, Thursday’s initial distribution from the Frank Washburn Charitable Trust was bittersweet. Washburn was a family friend and fishing partner since Thorstenson was 14 years old.
“I will miss our meetings,” he said Thursday. “We met several times a year, and I’ll miss his company and his stories, because he was such a story-teller.”
But Thorstenson also said he savored the memories of a man, born before the Great Depression, whose pennywise personality would benefit so many Rapid City residents far into the future.
“The difference between that generation and today is they spared no sacrifice to save money so they could go do something with it,” he said. “Frank drove used cars and lived in the same unassuming neighborhood in which he started. He could have lived in the biggest mansion in Rapid City and been driving Cadillacs, but he thought it was important to save and be able to give back to his community.”
Washburn’s legacy, Thorstenson said, would help everyone in the community for years to come. Among the recipients of checks Thursday were the Boy Scouts, Youth & Family Services, Rapid City Elks Lodge, Optimist Club and Salvation Army, he said.
“He is basically giving it all back,” he said. “Nonprofits like Volunteers of America and Western South Dakota Senior Services both had been longtime tenants of Frank’s, so it’s like they’ll be getting their rent money back and more. In total, more than a million dollars will be disbursed from Frank’s estate.”
Washburn’s closest friends and business partners said they would most miss the man’s ready smile, self-effacing humor and willingness to share a simple story of success over breakfast or lunch.
“After breakfast one day, in fact the last time I saw Frank, he told me he wanted to show me something,” Rodman recalled. “We went to his store, where he had a man build him a beautiful handmade wooden coffin. He was buried in it. He got a big grin on his face and he said to me, `I had it built with drawers because I am going to take it with me.’”
Frank Washburn obviously lied, because he is giving all his money away.