Couple Bequeaths $1.6M to Surprised Friends, Neighbors

Willis and Arlene Hatch lived simply but blissfully together for 57 years.

Before they retired, Willis Hatch — known to his friends as "Ish" — worked their 80-acre farm just south of Lowell, and his wife taught at Lowell Middle School.

The married couple went everywhere together: church services, community pancake breakfasts, school plays. They enjoyed taking wintertime trips to Brownsville, Texas, but allowed themselves few luxuries.

"They was normal people, good people," Harry Erickson, 72, told The Grand Rapids Press for a story published Thursday. "And it didn't matter to them if you had one dollar or 10, they'd be your friend."

An automobile accident killed the Hatches in early November. Now, about 70 of their friends and neighbors are surprised to find themselves a collective $1.6 million richer as the beneficiaries of the late couple's frugalness and generosity.

The recipients, all of whom are from the Lowell-Alto-Clarksville area just east of Grand Rapids, were bequeathed certificates of deposit ranging in value from $5,000 to well more than $100,000. Their estate was valued at $2.9 million and included the CDs, the farm and some stocks.

"Isn't that something?" said Sandra VanWeelden, 72, whose family, including three grown children, received more than $250,000 from the Hatches, who never had children of their own and lived into their early 90s.

Judging by the amount of money they doled out, the couple had many friends, including fellow parishioners at Alto United Methodist Church, where many of the beneficiaries are members.

"We, the whole church, are obviously grateful to them, and grateful to God that he gave them to us," said the Rev. Dean Bailey. Added Bailey's wife, Jan: "They left a lot to the people they'd loved, and I think everybody was surprised."

That included the Baileys, who were notified that the Hatches had left the church about $50,000 toward a building fund trying to raise $800,000 for a new place of worship. Their gift, said the pastor, represents "about a year's worth of our fundraising capability."

The biggest beneficiaries appear to be the VanWeeldens. Sandra and husband Gil, who were longtime friends of the Hatches, received CDs valued at about $120,000. Each of their three children received about $35,000.

Sandra VanWeelden, who used to teach with Arlene Hatch, was one of few people who knew that that Hatches were taking out the joint CDs through the years.

"Arlene had told me," she said. "But I had no idea it was going to be that much money."