Published July 02. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 02. 2014 1:30PM
A low-profile North Stonington man who worked maintenance jobs much of his life has left the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut its largest gift by far, about $8 million, to be used to promote animal welfare and protect the environment.
Peter Grayson Letz, only 60 when he died last year of cancer, was described this week by friends and family as something of a lone wolf who never married and had few friends but managed to accumulate a large amount of money largely through inheritance. Letz's Russian-born grandfather, Peter Rudolph Letz, had been an executive with the manufacturing company Cooper Industries in Mount Vernon, Ohio, accumulating much of the family wealth, said one relative who asked not to be identified.
"He had no ambition," said the family member who, like others, was surprised at the size of Letz's gift. "He was pretty frugal. Maybe he was smart about making investments."
Letz's closest friend, who also asked not to be identified, called him a "hands-on type of guy" who had no patience for sitting behind a desk.
"He respected the poor more than the rich," he said. "He might have been a hard guy to befriend, but he was a loyal friend. It's hard to paint the right picture of someone like him."
Letz, who graduated from Robert E. Fitch High School and attended the former Mohegan Community College in Norwich (now Three Rivers), had worked at the former Fisher Controls valve manufacturing plant in North Stonington for a time, according to associates, but his last job was reportedly at the town transfer station.
"He was not big on climbing a social ladder," his friend said. "His family had social status. He thought of himself as a common working guy."
Letz's father, George, who died five years ago at age 88, was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who spent three decades as an engineer at Electric Boat and was active in the Groton community along with his late wife, Beverly. Letz's brother, Christopher, died of cancer in 2008 and had no children, leaving Peter as sole inheritor of the family trust, including several pieces of real estate.
Maryam Elahi, president and chief executive of the New London-based community foundation, said Letz's donation - more than double the size of the nonprofit's second-largest gift of $3.4 million from attorney Edmund W. O'Brien of Waterford - came as a welcome surprise.
"We're really thrilled about this," she said in an interview at The Day. "It will enable us to do wonderful things in the community."
Elahi said the foundation will hold a series of forums to get input from the community about how best to use the funding, which is estimated to provide about $320,000 a year in perpetuity for local environmental and animal causes. The foundation, with about $51 million in assets, currently has nine funds with $13 million devoted to animal and environmental issues.
The Peter Grayson Letz Fund for Animals and the Environment, which will focus on domestic pets and wildlife as well as environmental education, came out of conversations Letz had with attorney Suzanne Kitchings, an estate-planning specialist in Old Lyme who also worked with Letz's parents. "He wanted a legacy," Kitchings said. "He wanted to do something important with it."
Kitchings described Letz as an avid nature photographer who loved local history and the outdoors. He once rescued a baby raccoon and brought it over to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Stonington, she said.
Maggie Jones, executive director of the nature center, said Letz was a longtime supporter of the nonprofit who allowed the agency to conduct nature walks along the former trolley tracks in back of his property.
Jones described Letz as quiet and soft-spoken, the kind of guy who kept to himself but was always inquisitive about nature. She still has a bronze salamander figure he once gave her as a gift.
Mary Kelly, president of the Groton Animal Foundation, didn't know Letz but said she had a number of ideas about programs that could be supported by his gift, including the nonprofit's bill-subsidy fund that helps people who can't afford their pets' veterinarian care, and a feral-cat initiative.
"This is a godsend to a lot of the nonprofits that are struggling to get donations and grants," she said. "This is absolutely wonderful."
Besides his affinity for the outdoors, Letz had a thing for old cars, particularly a vintage 1965 Lincoln Continental that he used to drive near the front of annual parades in North Stonington, associates said. Toward the end of his life, they recalled, he splurged on a 2012 Corvette that was listed in the $70,000 range and he paid cash for, along with a top-of-the-line John Deere tractor, a log-splitter and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"For the first few months (after Letz's death), I felt like a used car dealer," said David Zuckerbraun, a vice president at The Washington Trust Co. who is in charge of disposing of Letz's estate.
Tom Gray, who lived two houses down from Letz on Main Street, said few people suspected the former town employee known for couponing and scavenging wood at the sides of roads had accumulated a large fortune.
Letz lived in a modest 1920 Cape Cod home inherited from his grandfather on the site of a former Texaco service station. The 3.6-acre property's barn is nicer than the house, Gray said, and it is currently listed for sale on Zillow for $225,000.
Letz knew many people in North Stonington, associates said, but he put off some by expressing strong, often conservative opinions they didn't want to hear.
"He would tell you what he thought," said the close friend. "He didn't care if you were the vice president or the town bum."
"He was not a recluse, but he didn't make friends easily," Gray said. "There were periods when he wouldn't speak to you for some unknown reason (for months at a time)."
Kelly Hawkins, a Letz relative, recalled that he didn't seem to enjoy family gatherings, breezing in and out during obligatory get-togethers. When family found he was sick, she said, Letz declined offers to take him for cancer treatments out of state, though he did go through some chemotherapy sessions at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
"He did what he could do," said his close friend. "He chose to stay in Connecticut. He wasn't unrealistic. He knew where it was heading and he accepted it."
Gray - who employed Letz from time to time for odd jobs at his bed and breakfast - said his neighbor had become more friendly in the months leading up to his death. People in the neighborhood would bring him food, according to a relative, and Gray said Letz seemed to enjoy stopping over for a glass of wine and some conversation.
Letz gave Gray a friendly wave last summer as he drove off for the last time to check himself into a hospice center, where he died Sept. 22. The only vestige of Letz's wealth could be discerned in the car he chose to drive: a black Corvette Z06 that could go from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.