Figuring out how to split up Warren Wefler’s $21 million will
CANTON, Ohio — The slender old man who lived in a simple farmhouse on Massillon’s western edge loved to accumulate things — land, rental houses, junk cars and trucks, even used TV dinner foil trays.
To many, Warren Wefler seemed odd and eccentric. He never married. He had no children. He lived much of his adult life in that same family home, with his mother and one of his sisters. He was smart and kind, but some chuckled behind his back at his bad toupee — mostly because of all the mismatched shades of brown and red in his hairpiece, sideburns, beard and mustache.
“He didn’t look or act like a normal person; just a little bit out there,” explained Leo Scully, one of his former bosses at Republic Steel, where Wefler worked as a self-taught industrial engineer.
At times, Wefler was difficult to figure out.
“The guy wore double-knit pants 40 years after they went out of style,” said Max Guscoff, who for four decades owned Howie’s on the Lake, a popular bar and restaurant in the Portage Lakes area, near one of the cottages Wefler owned. “He was more than frugal … wouldn’t spend a … damn dime on anything. But Warren was a nice guy. I’d have a drink with him if he was still alive.”
Guscoff said he went round and round with Wefler years ago before agreeing to buy that old cottage from Wefler for $70,000. Guscoff still insists that was $10,000 more than it was worth.
It appeared Wefler barely made ends meet inside his two-story farmhouse on Pigeon Run Avenue SW. He was the last of the Wefler clan to occupy the 40-acre slice of farmland in Massillon and Tuscarawas Township, on the corner of 17th Street. When he entered St. Luke Lutheran Community several years ago, the Pigeon Run property was run-down. Two outbuildings had nearly collapsed, and the barn’s paint was all but gone.
Others believed Wefler had at least some money to his name. After all, he’d purchased quite a bit of land in other locations through the years. He’d owned rental houses from time to time. But most had no idea he wound up owning more than 4,000 acres in nine counties.
Wefler ultimately sold his land, mineral rights and belongings a few years before his death at age 91, on Jan. 14, 2015, exactly three years ago. All his assets have since been turned into cash and inventoried.
That money, his estate, totals a staggering $21 million.
Soon, two distant relatives, an attorney and a judge will try to fulfill three cryptic final wishes Wefler laid out in his last will and testament by giving almost all of the money to charity.
But which charities?
Three years later, that’s a question yet to be answered.
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“Oh, my God; oh, my God; oh my God,” said Russell Maier, the former chief executive of Republic Engineered Steels who now lives in Naples, Fla., when told of Wefler’s net worth.
Maier, who also grew up on the west side of Massillon, said he’s actually a distant cousin of Wefler. And Wefler had worked directly under Maier at Republic Steel in the 1960s. He recalled Wefler talking once about driving to New York to buy an old car, a Jaguar.
“How are you going to pay for it?” Maier asked.
“I’m gonna pay cash,” Wefler replied.
“Warren, you better be careful carrying that around,”
“No problem; I’ve got a money belt.”
If there was one thing Wefler knew, it was how to take care of money.
“Warren was a good worker; never missed,” Maier said. “I knew he started buying up land later. He knew what he was doing. He saw that land had value that would never go away.”
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Wefler was born on Oct. 22, 1923. His sister Verna was a year older. Another sister, Miriam, was three years older. They grew up on a farm their parents, Howard and Belle Wefler, owned on Pigeon Run.
The family lived modestly. They grew and sold cabbage, tomatoes, turnips and peaches. Howard Wefler was once president of the local PTA. Their uncle, Elson Wefler, was an attorney, who later would serve as president of the Stark County Bar Association.
As a child, a musically inclined Warren Wefler performed at church and social gatherings. At age 8, he played the ukulele at a meeting of the Tau Alpha Lambda Sorority in Massillon. At the same event, his cousin Grace Hofstetter — who later would become a renowned Canton heart surgeon — sang, accompanied by her sister, Ruth. In 1941, the same year he graduated from Massillon Washington High, Wefler teamed up with Donald Kipfer on a clarinet duo of “Myrriment Polka” at Myers Reformed Church.
Wefler earned academic honors at Lorin Andrews Jr. High and in high school, where he was a member of the band.
In his 20s and 30s, Wefler and Verna were members of the Young Adults Club of St. John’s Evangelical and Reformed Church. He often led prayer and scripture readings, and the group gathered for picnics and wiener roasts at a cottage he purchased in the 1940s on Coleman Drive, on Turkeyfoot Lake, in the Portage Lakes.
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Wefler’s father, a lifelong farmer, died in 1964. His oldest sister, Miriam, had married Delmar Indorf and was on her own by then. After his father’s death, Wefler and Verna continued to live at home with their mother.
Scully, Wefler’s one-time supervisor at Republic Steel, said despite the quirks, Wefler was a stand-up gentleman who often dated Mennonite women.
“Once, he asked for my permission to take my wife to an Amish auction,” Scully recalled. “She was looking for a brass pot. He knew where to find one … but he wanted to make sure I was OK with it.”
Scully said Wefler maintained an ongoing stock of old cars in a garage. Upon Wefler’s retirement from Republic, Scully and some others bought Wefler an old car — as a joke.
“He loved it … he didn’t get that it was a joke,” Scully said.
Wefler never drove a new car; he bought old ones to fix instead.
Patricia Silla grew up on Pigeon Run, across the street from Wefler. She was inside his house as a child, then again before it was sold to local farmer William Ruegg in 2013. She said Wefler inexplicably saved stacks of TV dinner foil trays, and by the time he’d moved in to St. Luke’s, the place was not only cluttered but dirty and unkempt.
“I don’t even know how many old cars he’d saved over the years,” Silla said. “I remember he took one to the Massillon car show — but he had painted it with a paintbrush!”
Wefler’s mother died in 1982; his sister Miriam in 2000; then his sister Verna in 2003, leaving him alone on the homestead.
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Wefler did have a longtime friendship and romance with Ruth Ann Ball but never married. She’d worked with Verna, a medical technologist at Timken Mercy Medical Center.
“He never lived like he had any money,” said Ruth Ann’s sister, Charlene Ball. “But he was always the person who felt sorry for people in need … he was a very sensitive man with a big heart. I know he gave money to churches over the years to help out.”
Wefler’s personal financial strategy through his retirement years had been to buy land, sometimes at auctions, then lease rights to farmers, oil and gas companies and timber businesses.
An aging Wefler gave Ball power of attorney to handle all his financial affairs in 2012. She began selling some of the 4,000-plus acres Wefler had stockpiled prior to him moving into the nursing home.
Peter Kiko, of the Kiko Company, handled the Wefler property auctions. Wefler’s portfolio included farms of all sizes in Stark, Carroll, Tuscarawas, Harrison, Monroe, Belmont, Holmes, Coshocton and Muskingum counties. In some cases, Kiko was dealing with land that his grandfather, Russ Kiko, previously had sold to Wefler a generation ago.
Peter Kiko said executors of Wefler’s estate asked him not to comment for this story, but he said this of Wefler: “He was notorious. He was a legend. Anyone who owns land knew of him.”
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Wefler’s last will and testament, last modified in 2013, named Ball and his nieces, Yvonne and Lynne Indorf, as executors of his estate. Ball waived her rights, leaving the task to the Indorfs.
When Canton attorney John V. Boggins was hired by the Indorfs, he knew it would be an involved case.
“The will was so problematic,” he explained.
Typically, a will spells out how to distribute estate money. It names specific people or charities as recipients.
Wefler’s will doled out a combined $470,000 to more than a dozen named nieces, nephews and great nieces and great nephews. However, he wasn’t that specific with the bulk of his money.
Per his will, the rest of the $21 million estate was to go to:Due to our recession, what will help people who cannot find a profitable job is to give them money, to pay for taxes, food, doctors bills, clothes, rent, utilities, transportation, school, mortgages, and so forth … For all, to help prevent unwed pregnancies in our youth by instituting and sponsoring programs including educational and religious instruction on abstinence. Also to aid and assist in the spread of the Christian [religion], including pre-school.
All three are charitable causes — and no one disputes that — but selecting which charities to fund is the tricky part.
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The executors weren’t sure how to interpret several sections of his will. Boggins filed a will construction action in Stark County Probate Court, asking Judge Dixie Park for direction on several issues, including how to decipher Wefler’s charitable intentions. In addition, he asked for guidance in determining whether executors had to establish a trust to distribute money incrementally or whether it could be handed out all at once.
There was some testimony that Wefler had previously donated to the Salvation Army, but there was no established pattern of giving. Park said recipients of the money will have to be “consistent with” the types of causes Wefler spelled out in his will.
In the fall, Park ruled the money can be given either in outright gifts or through a trust. She also directed executors to identify “existing charitable organizations, the missions of which are to aid the materially disadvantaged, promote the Christian religion through Christian educational programs, and assist programs aimed [at] women’s reproductive health and family planning through abstinence.”
The executors are to submit written proposals, identifying recipients for the court’s approval. Park acknowledged it may take a while because of potential estate tax liabilities.
“This was his plan for a plan, and we’ll carry out his wishes,” Boggins said.
Tim Botos is a reporter for The Canton (Ohio) Repository.