World War II Veteran Donates Millions To Wildlife Preservation

World War II veteran Russ Gremel was an avid outdoorsman his whole life, who made millions in the stock market. Now, at 98-years-old, he's giving it all away to his local Audubon Society.


May 26 2019, Updated 7:42 p.m. ET

What would you do with $2 million? Maybe you’d stop living off of stew and oatmeal. Or trade in your 25-year-old Dodge. Heck, maybe you’d ditch the undersized bungalow you’ve lived in for years and buy a yacht.

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Well, not if you’re 98-year-old Russ Gremel. “If you can’t do good with it, don’t have it,” he says of the almighty dollar—more than 2 million of which he just donated to the Illinois Audubon Society.

Gremel, a World War II veteran, spent his life as an avid outdoorsman: serving as scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America for more than 60 years, and enjoying camping and hiking in the wilderness for more than nine decades. 

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In his 20s, Gremel bought up $1,007 worth of stock in a small but growing pharmacy chain by the name of Walgreens. His brother advised him to invest in drugstores, Inhabitat reports, reasoning that there would never be a shortage of people seeking medicine. 

As Walgreens' stock ballooned, Gremel determined he would leave a legacy endowment to the Illinois Audubon Society in order to protect wetlands for birds and other species. But then it made more sense to him to give the money away while he was still alive. That way, he could see what good came of the donation.

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The money from Gremel (along with a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and its own funds) afforded the Illinois Audubon Society the opportunity to double the area of wetlands protected in Amboy, Ill. The organization is already home to about 400 plant species, 200 bird species, and various rare turtles—stats expected to expand and increase with the addition of the 395-acre “Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Gremel told the Illinois Audubon Society that he hopes the sanctuary will allow “generations of young land stewards and bird enthusiasts… to visit and enjoy the sanctuary,” according to the conservation group’s website. The parcel of land, which is two miles from the organization’s Amboy Marsh Nature Preserve, expands habitat space that was once part of Winnebago Swamps, a 100,000-plus acre complex of wetlands in Lee County, Ill.

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Gremel told the Chicago Tribune he didn’t want to keep the money for himself because he’s “a very simple man” who never had a wife, children, or mortgage to support—and who chooses to eat oatmeal and stew instead of what he calls "fancy foods." The last car Gremel drove was a 25-year-old Dodge Omni. 

Illinois Audubon Society Executive Director Jim Herkert told the Chicago Tribune of Gremel’s donation, “It’s allowing us to protect a really valuable and important piece of property and fulfill one of Russ’ wishes that we could find a place where people could come out and experience and enjoy nature the way he did as a kid."

Last week, Gremel was joined by a number of his former Boy Scouts and others to pay a visit to the Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary site, 100 miles west of Chicago for the naming ceremony.     


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