Thursday, December 11, 1997
Miss Koehl's million-dollar
finance lesson

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ruth Koehl left almost $4 million to strangers. No strings. Except that the money must be used to help people in Cincinnati. What a nice string.

And what an exceptional woman. Described by a friend as ''an astute businesswoman who could dominate a corporation, well before it was fashionable to do so,'' she walked to her neighborhood hardware store to use the copying machine for her Wall Street Journal clippings.

It cost her only a nickel there. Copies are 10 cents most everywhere else.

Miss Ruth Caroline Koehl (pronounced Kale) was born in 1903 in the family home on Reading Road near Florence Avenue in Walnut Hills. When she was 16, her father, Harry, built a house on Appleton Street in Oakley for his wife, Emma, and Ruth and her sister, Elmira.

Miss Koehl lived in that house until June 1996, when she died at age 93 of a stroke. A nice brick house, small with some pretty stained glass, it sold recently for $80,000. She drove a 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass sedan, immaculately maintained, just like her little house.

This money, $3.8 million in an unrestricted endowment to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, belonged to her. She earned it as a business executive and tended it as a shrewd investor. A 1921 graduate of Hughes High School, she attended the University of Cincinnati Evening College while working during the day.

Her last job, her favorite, was as comptroller of a Bellevue, Ky., company that made hardware, medicine cabinets and light fixtures. She retired while only in her 80s, so she had a lot of energy left to complain about, for instance, zoning.

''We had our differences,'' says Jack Staudt. Miss Koehl opposed the zoning change that let his restaurant move next door to her. ''She was very well spoken and very professional. But she could be a pain.''

I feel confident that Miss Koehl would revel in that last bit of information.

She was not a helpless, lonely little old lady. She was a strong and confident woman who lived a long time. Long enough to outlive most of her family, except for a few second cousins. Elmira died in 1987. But she had people. People who chose her.

She spent holidays with Bonnie Powell and her family. ''She was terribly intelligent, could think rings around almost anybody else,'' says Mrs. Powell, who knew Miss Koehl for 50 years. ''She was brilliant. And fun.''

Jane Greene, daughter of the family that owned the Delta Queen, remembers her as a frequent passenger, ''very popular and a great dancer.'' Jane's brother, Tom, says she looked like Fay Wray, King Kong's beautiful blond co-star.

''She liked the idea of educating women in business,'' Mrs. Powell says. ''I always thought maybe she'd fund some kind of scholarship. She never got to it.''

Well, let's see. What has Miss Koehl taught us?

You can do a lot worse in life than live in a nice house in a real neighborhood, where you could pick the occasional fight and still get the polite respect of your opponents. And you can't buy or rent the friendship of somebody like Bonnie Powell. Or the admiration of a boy who thinks you look like a movie star.

Her money will go to whatever we need around here. The arts, health, human services, the environment and education. No strings. Whatever we need.

Or she could have built a mansion with a gazillion bedrooms and hot and cold running servants. And she could have driven a car that cost more than the house on Appleton.

She could have.

But, of course, Ruth Caroline Koehl knew the value of a dollar.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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