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Millionaire bequeaths a surprise

Recluse donates his Oregon farm to create a park

MEDFORD, Ore. -- Old Man Howard spent decades chasing children off his farm, shotgun in hand, watching little legs spin like windmills into the distance. Generations considered him the meanest man in Jackson County. But to others, Wesley Howard was simply an oddity: a loner who never married, never left Oregon, and lived his whole life in the same place he was born, a century-old farmhouse without phones or toilets. Children saw it as a haunted house; passersby photographed it as an artifact.

In March, at age 87, he died of a stroke, enigmatic to the end. Howard, it turned out, was rich. Few knew. He bequeathed his entire estate, worth more than $11 million, to create a youth sports park on his 68-acre farm.

The surprise gift has cast Howard in a new light, causing residents to question whether they ever really knew him.

An editorial in the Medford Mail Tribune opened with this line: "We'll never know if Wes Howard had a Scrooge-like epiphany or if there was always a charitable soul hidden beneath his gruff exterior."

Gene Glazier, who lived across from the Howard farm for five decades and whose children were chased off the property, said he was "blown over" by Howard's last act. "We had no idea. A kids' park," Glazier said with astonishment.

A few of Howard's neighbors had a different take on the old man. Ivan and Twyla Bryant, who lived across from Howard for 44 years, recalled a gentle, extremely private man who was constantly harassed by neighborhood children.

The Howard property lured the curious; some children poked around his barn and orchards. Others hit golf balls to break his windows. They picked his grapes and ate his peaches. They sneaked into his fields and hunted for quail and pheasant.

On Halloween, Twyla Bryant said, any child brave enough to knock on Howard's door would get an apple and a pencil and even, if you looked carefully, a slight curve of a crooked smile. And that was as close to Howard's house as most people ever got.

Which is why, on a recent weekend, a crowd of 1,200 people gathered at Howard's farm for an auction of the man's belongings. His house was opened up. For many, it was the first opportunity to glimpse the interior of a very private life.

Howard's land was once a real farm, with alfalfa and oats on one side, cattle on the other. But for the past 30 years or so, neighbors said, the land was barren except for a grape orchard and fruit trees.

The house was built in 1890 and had not been painted in a half-century. From the road, the house looked, as one neighbor said, "ready to fall."

After his father's death in 1972, Howard lived in the house by himself and apparently had a strong aversion to throwing things away. Both floors were stacked ceiling-high with newspapers and magazines dating to the early 1900s. Upstairs bedrooms were equally cramped, filled with some of Howard's boyhood toys.

Howard cooked on a potbellied wood stove. He drank water from a hand-dug well, and he used an outhouse.

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