Janesville79.8°

Evansville’s $1 million donor reveals her identity

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Ted Sullivan
October 9, 2009
— For four years, it was the biggest mystery in Evansville: Who donated $1 million to the Evansville Community and Senior Center?

It was the talk of the town as longtime residents gossiped about the money in coffee shops and guessed who the anonymous donor might be.


“We were just buzzing about it,” said Mary Libby, president of the senior center. “People were absolutely overwhelmed and trying to figure out who could give a million dollars.”


It turned out to be Mary Peckham, a modest 93-year-old widow with no children, whose husband worked as an electrician while she kept the books for their small business, Peckham Electric.


“I never wanted attention. I just wanted to do something for the community,” she said. “The community has been good to us, and it was just a way of repaying.”


Peckham donated the money in 2005, but she kept it a secret until last month. Peckham has a meal at the center every weekday. She visits with friends and plays games there.


She made the donation because she wanted the center to get a new building. The center is currently in a room inside the Theodore Robinson Intermediate School.


“I thought we needed a new senior center,” she said. “I had money that I could spare. I thought maybe this would get something going for Evansville.”


Peckham, a petite gray-haired woman with glasses, was honored Thursday for making the donation and for turning 93. A party was held at the center.


She sat quietly at a table and ate cake while people thanked her. She received many hugs.


“I’m just overwhelmed. I really am,” she said. “I just keep smiling.”


The new center will be built at Church and Maple streets. It will have rooms for meetings, crafts, woodworking, games, eating and other activities. Construction could start in the spring.


Peckham decided to make her donation public after plans for the new center got underway.


“I think she just wanted to be part of it,” Libby said. “She should get credit and enjoy it.”


Juna Nimz, Peckham’s neighbor, said she wasn’t shocked after learning of Peckham’s donation.


“That’s the kind of person she is,” Nimz said. “She’s very, very giving and very concerned for the old people.”


Group prepares to launch fundraising campaign

Five task forces involving 80 people are preparing to launch a fundraising campaign for the new Evansville Community/Senior Center, said Janis Ringhand, executive director of the Friends group planning the project.


The fundraising campaign should be launched in the next month or two, she said.


The group has hired Janesville consultant Kurt Saterbak to assist.


“We knew we needed help,” Ringhand said.


The group is working to have answers to anticipated questions before the campaign kicks off, she said.


In March, the group bought from Greg Helgesen a 2.5-acre lot at the southeast corner of Church and Maple streets. A sign now marks the site for the future building.


The group is looking to raise about $2 million to build the center, or phase 1 of the project. More than $1.5 million likely will be needed for phase 2, which would be an indoor community pool.


In 2005, Evansville resident Mary Peckham set up a $1 million trust fund with the annual interest of about $50,000 going to support a senior center.


The goal is to have fundraising done by spring so groundbreaking can begin then, with construction of phase 1 being complete by the end of 2010, Ringhand said.


—Gina Duwe

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