BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Harriet Wall died in March of this year at 95 years old, she left a void in the Niskayuna community. Her bridge group at the Mohawk Golf Club, the neighbors who often visited her home near GE’s research facility to check on her health and the friends she had made at local nonprofits all missed her unmistakable presence.
Wall was known for being generous and sharply funny. Her friends said she did not fit the stereotype of the docile older lady, except for her cat, Tiger, which she loved very much. She was, without question, special.
Shortly after her death, one final gift from Wall to her hometown was revealed: $500,000 each to five local nonprofit organizations. The bequest totaled a staggering $2.5 million.
Wall’s husband, Robert, died in 1994. He worked at GE for many years, and friends said the couple’s wealth came from Robert’s reinvesting options at his job. They had nieces and nephews, but no children.
One beneficiary was the Niskayuna Community Foundation. Wall was a founding member of the nonprofit and a familiar face at its events and fundraisers. The other four organizations have yet to be announced.
Despite the generosity she displayed during her lifetime, Wall’s bequest shocked NCF’s board members.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she did it quietly and unassumingly,” board member Cindy Ball said.
Ball knew Wall as more than just a fellow NCF supporter. She was also one of Ball’s mother’s best friends. She and Wall had been classmates at Nott Terrace High School in Schenectady and, later, when both were widowed, became neighbors and close companions.
“They started out in school together and were friends, and kind of had second lives,” Ball said. “It was full circle.”
Wall participated in all kinds of community activities even as she aged.
When she and Ball’s mother were in their 70s or 80s, they enrolled in a computer class through Niskayuna schools’ continuing education program. Ball and her daughter accompanied the older women.
Ball remembers Wall’s reaction to the technology as she learned about it: She couldn’t believe she could type something and it would appear on the “television,” as she referred to the computer screen.
After the class, Ball’s daughter was enamored with Wall and her personality. She called her a “whippersnapper.”
“You expect little old ladies to sort of be tiring, but Harriet, she had a great sense of humor,” Ball said.
She was also energetic and active, echoing her days as a physical education major at Boston University.
Staples of the Niskayuna community, like the Mohawk Golf Club and the Continuing Education program, enriched Wall’s life as years passed. She never forgot to say thank “you.”
That’s why Cindy Phillippe, another member of the Niskayuna Community Foundation, said she already thought of Wall as an exceptionally generous person even before her lawyer called to announce the half-million-dollar estate gift.
“She joined about 1,000 other Niskayuna residents and became a founding member of the foundation, which meant she supported us financially during our formative years,” Phillippe said.
“And we were so grateful and really very excited when we would receive her $100 check that she sent us annually,” she added. “That, to us, was very generous, and we were so grateful. So you can imagine how we feel about this.”
The NCF board plans to add Wall’s gift to its endowment fund, which will about triple the pot of money, which stood at about $170,000 before the bequest.
Phillippe estimated the donation will generate about $20,000 extra for grants annually, all of which will benefit the community.
NCF gives grants for things like safe after-prom activities, classroom and sport equipment, and support services for disabled, bereaved and financially struggling residents.
“It ensures that our grant distribution program will continue and it will grow,” Phillippe said. “It’s been a huge, huge help to us.
“I think she had extraordinary vision and obviously a very strong love for the Niskayuna community.”