Priests and representatives from a dozen parishes convened Thursday in Harlan for the main disbursement of Edwin Skalla‚??s estate. From left, front row: John Fischer of Neola; Chris Fontanini of Early and Defiance; John Dorton of Portsmouth, Panama and Westphalia; and Michael Berner of Logan and Missouri Valley. From left, back row: Ray Chipman of Harlan, co-executor; Paul Kelly of Denison; John Frost of Harlan; Felix Onuora of Dunlap and Woodbine; and Clarence Reinig of Portsmouth, co-executor. / Kyle Munson, The Des Moines Register
HARLAN, Iowa - The collection plate was unusually hefty Thursday for the roomful of Catholic priests in this downtown law office.
It was 1:42 p.m. when retired banker Ray Chipman and farmer Clarence Reinig began to hand the men in white collars the manila envelopes, each containing a check for $720,000.
This was the last wish of Edwin "Bud" Skalla, the reclusive 92-year-old bachelor farmer from Portsmouth, Iowa, who died in November and willed most of his agricultural fortune (some $13.4 million) to 13 local, predominantly rural Catholic parishes that stretch across western Iowa from Council Bluffs to Denison.
Revelation of Skalla's bequest in January shocked the region and spread his name through the local diners. Before that he had been just another forgotten farmer thanks to his idiosyncratic, isolated ways.
"I've never seen a funeral so small in Shelby County history," said the Rev. Mike Berner, the priest in Logan where Skalla's sister, Roseann Brummer, attends Mass; like another sister in California, she didn't receive a dime in Skalla's will. Such was Bud's mercurial, miserly nature.
On this Mother's Day it should be noted that Skalla was renowned for how he doted on his own elderly mom - by all accounts to a possessive, selfish extreme - who lived to be a centenarian.
So more than $9 million exchanged hands Thursday on the second floor of Kathleen Kohorst's law office on the square in Harlan. Appropriately enough, this once was the site of Shelby County State Bank; the priests and other parish representatives circled around a plate of cookies on a sofa and chairs in front of the old vault.
"I'll miss 'em," Kohorst said of co-executors Chipman, 82, and Reinig, 80. "I've seen these guys about every day since November."
While Skalla's fortune is an obvious boon to small-town parishes that must cope with aging, dwindling populations, the adage that more money brings more problems also rang true last week.
"If the estate wants to help us with aspirin we'll greatly appreciate it," quipped the Rev. John Frost of Harlan, "because there's all kinds of suggestions out there, and there's going to be lots of potential headaches."
Berner recalled how he had joked to his Missouri Valley parish that he would inform worshipers of plans for the money after he returned from his Caribbean cruise. Four days later in Council Bluffs he was asked in all seriousness when he was scheduled to depart.
These spiritual men are all too aware that they must remain attentive to earthly politics and drudgeries.
"I need to put a roof on Missouri Valley," Berner said of real plans for Skalla's money in one of his parishes. "I need $142,000 of it. It's been leaking for two years."
As a whole the priests cited prayer and time as their primary allies in trying to wrangle this surprise fortune.
"I'm happy that this windfall is coming on my watch," said the Rev. Felix Onuora, who collected checks for both Dunlap and Woodbine. But he "will not be happy if it is all spent on my watch."
"I'm a missionary," he elaborated, "and I believe the young shall grow."
"Somebody can say, 'Let's make a monument, a big monument, and put all the money there.' It's easier to spend, to reap than to build, you know. But we have to think of the future."
John Fischer from Neola isn't a priest but has served on his parish finance council for decades. His congregation plans to meet later this month to debate the best use for the funds.
"We're going to probably salt the money away like some hardworking German and have it be a legacy," Fischer said.
Neola has experience with this: Another bachelor farmer willed the church 400 acres in 1944 to ensure long-term financial stability.
The Rev. John Dorton, the priest in Skalla's native Portsmouth as well as in the nearby parishes of Panama and Westphalia, has been at the epicenter of this rural drama.
"We're going to try to be very good stewards with the money that has been given to us, like Bud would expect," he said.
"Yeah, if you were to waste a dollar he would haunt you," Chipman smiled.
The Skalla fortune did lead to what Chipman called "quite a stir" in March when Bishop Richard Pates of the Des Moines Diocese sent a letter to the parishes that advocated for the Catholic Foundation of Southwest Iowa as a wise repository of much of the money. He ended up sending a second letter to clarify that he wasn't trying to "appropriate" the money and also arrived Thursday evening in Panama to reassure locals in a private forum with dozens of local Catholics.
"I'm sure it was Mr. Skalla's intent that this money be given to the individual parishes and that it stay in the individual parishes, and then they decide how the money's going to be invested and where it's going to be invested," Chipman told the priests gathered in the law office.
Plans for the money eventually will become apparent. But Skalla likely will remain a bit of a mystery. Thursday seemed like closure for many of the people involved (although a second, minor disbursement of $7,000 checks will follow next month after a final hearing to close the estate.)
"If you got on his bad side, you stayed there," Chipman said of Skalla.
Yet "deep down he had a heart," Chipman added, "and working for him for 18 years I experienced it."
The need to render unto Caesar is unavoidable in this life. Even though more money brings more problems, the priests Thursday seemed to take it all in stride and with good humor.
Berner added one more item to his wish list: "A country without extradition."
If you were listening, Bud, don't worry - that was a joke.
Copyright 2014USA TODAY
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