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East Lyme - Michael Guty might not have known exactly why all the people were visiting him Friday, but it didn't stop a smile from creeping across his face.
The 92-year-old World War II veteran knew what he was doing when he included in his will a bequest of more than $800,000 to American Legion Post 15 in Jewett City. A recent probate court decision allowed Guty, who has advanced dementia, to donate the money now.
On Friday afternoon, with officials from the American Legion, Savings Institute Bank & Trust and Guty's attorney and friends assembled at Bride Brook Health & Rehab Center, Guty made the biggest-ever single donation to Post 15.
"The main objective of the American Legion is to serve our veterans, and for sure today, we've taken a step forward in doing that," said Richard W. Anderson, the state Legion representative to the national board of directors. "The money will be invested in an endowment and people will know in perpetuity that Michael Guty gave this money."
In June, Post 15 completed its "Home at Last" project, a living space for homeless veterans in Jewett City. Bill Czmyr, Post 15 financial manager, said 16 veterans have moved in and there's room for two more. Money from the endowment can go toward operating costs, "a couple other things," as well as the Legion's youth program, he said.
A plaque thanking Guty for his generosity will be placed in the home's lobby.
"It goes back to what we stand for: veterans helping veterans," Wayne Morgan, the state American Legion commander, said of the gift.
The donation always seemed a sure thing, Czmyr said. After all, during visits to the Legion before he came to live at Bride Brook, Guty, formerly of Canterbury, always said "he'd help us out financially."
"I said, 'OK, Mike, it'd be appreciated,'" Czmyr said. "But it was a secret. I never knew until his attorney called me. I sat in my chair, looked at Anna (Zubkova, Guty's lawyer) and said, 'Wow. He said he'd give something but he didn't say how much.'"
The amount itself seemed surprising to the small group that knows Guty best. The unassuming, frugal Guty had no immediate family but for a brother, who died in 2003, said Shirlee Anthony, Guty's conservator and closest friend. He drove a beat-up pickup truck, lived by himself until about seven years ago, and was an avid reader and gardener, Anthony said.
His parents moved to Canterbury from Ukraine when Guty was 10, she said. The family ran a chicken farm in Canterbury that Guty lived on until he joined the Army in 1942, serving through 1945, she said.
After his stint in the service Guty took adult education courses, worked at the Millstone power plant and was a member of the Iron Workers Union Local No. 15. Anthony first met him 25 years ago and was drawn to his quick wit, dry sense of humor and one-liners.
"I'd tell him, 'Mike, you look great today!' and he'd say, 'I know it!'" Anthony said.
As Guty got older, she would take him to appointments and bring him groceries and include him in holidays with her daughters. "He wouldn't eat the turkey because he couldn't see killing a turkey for Thanksgiving," Anthony said of one such occasion.
Today, Guty's health isn't bad, but his mental state has deteriorated, Anthony said.
While the conversations Czmyr recalled having with Guty are no longer possible, they remain fond memories. Guty would show up and "talk and talk," Czmyr said, then get up and leave "when he was done."
"He was right to the point, then out the door," he said.
Though never a member of the post, Guty stuck to his word of giving a donation, Czmyr said, despite losing his mental facilities.
"He was willing to help," Czmyr said. "He did it his way."