CENTRAL LAKE — Cleo Purdy never forgot where she came from.
The Central Lake native left the family farm in the 1950s, served in the Army, then went on to make millions in the California real estate market. Through it all, though, Purdy always kept Central Lake and its children close to her heart.
“She was always bragging about Central Lake,” said Purdy’s niece, Nancy Gibbard-Sulz. “She wanted to help the children. To uplift the children. She wanted them all to be lifted up and to know you could make something of yourself.”
Purdy passed away in January but, in death, gave back to her rural northern Michigan hometown in a big way. Purdy donated $12 million to the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. The foundation will now use the money to fund early childhood education endeavors in Central Lake, along with other educational programs and projects that help Central Lake families remove themselves from poverty.
“It was home,” said Phil Ellis, executive director of the Community Foundation. “She was born and raised (in Central Lake,) and that was home for her. She saw education as a way out of poverty. She felt very strongly that to service the educational developmental needs of early childhood was (a way) for kids and their families to find a pathway out of poverty.”
The money will all be spent in the Central Lake area with the intent of helping kids get the best education possible. Central lake Schools Superintendent Ben Williams said the district is extremely grateful for Purdy’s generosity.
“It’s an amazingly magnanimous gift — a real game changer for our school district and our community,” Williams said.
Purdy already funded an addition to the Central Lake Schools property that houses classrooms for early childhood education. Non-profits and other tax-exempt organizations, including the school district, can apply for funding for educational programs through the Community Foundation. The exact particulars on how the money will be spent will be discerned over time, but it’s clear Purdy wanted a significant portion of the money to be spent on early childhood education.
Purdy’s niece, Gibbard-Sulz, said the gift solidifies the memory of a woman she described as a beautiful person with a beautiful heart. Purdy grew up on the 80-acre family farm on Ellsworth Road. She went to school briefly in Chicago after high school but soon expressed a desire to return to the family farm and sell green beans.
Her father, Herbert, immediately shot down the idea.
“She called her dad and said, ‘I’m coming home,’” Gibbard-Sulz said. “I’m going to sell green beans like I did my senior year’ and her father told her ‘No you are not. You are going to go out in that world and make something of yourself.’”
That’s exactly what Purdy did. She became a special education teacher in California and started investing in real estate. The longtime resident of Santa Barbara invested in a small duplex, kicking off a hugely successful career in real estate investment that went on for decades.
“Cleo always told me that as a young girl she knew she had to buy real estate,” Gibbard-Sulz said. “Her mother and her grandmother would play Monopoly for days, and she always said that this was her first education on how to buy and sell property. With a little seed money she got from her mom and dad, she bought a little duplex in Santa Barbara. She fixed it up herself and that was the beginning of her new career.
“She wanted to (give) to the kids,” Gibbard-Sulz said. “She just wanted to help children.”