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From loner, art center gets $1-million surprise

They didn’t know him at Dunedin Fine Art Center. But Oskar Elbert still left the center his fortune.

Published October 6, 2006

DUNEDIN — Oskar Elbert might never have set foot in the Dunedin Fine Art Center, just minutes from his home.He hardly ever left his sparsely furnished condo. No one at the art center remembers him taking even one class there.

And shortly before his death, he told a neighbor he didn’t even know where the center was.

But that didn’t stop him from leaving the center his entire $1-million fortune after he died last November at age 87.
It is the largest single donation the art center has ever received.

It nearly equals the nonprofit organization’s entire annual budget.

And it has surprised and intrigued administrators at the center, which Elbert  picked from a list of charities as his sole heir.

“It would have been fabulous to have known him and to have talked to him,” said Ken Hannon, the center’s director of communications. “He led such a rich and adventurous life.”

Oskar Wenceslaus Elbert was born in Hungary to Czech parents and spent most of his childhood in Czechoslovakia.
He left no survivors but spoke five languages, lived in eight countries and survived two stints as a captive while serving the Czech Army during World War II.

His first wife also was Czech and immigrated with him in 1953 to Canada from Israel, where Elbert worked as a truck driver for the Israeli Army after the war.

In Canada, Elbert sold real estate. Then the Elberts moved to California, where he sold insurance. Then they moved to Australia, then to Hawaii in 1967.

In Honolulu, Elbert became a U.S. citizen and about the same time, in 1971, got divorced. He owned a business called Aloha Picture Frames Honolulu.

After traveling in Italy and Germany, he moved to Washington, D.C. in the mid 1970s, where he worked setting type in the composing room of the Washington Post.

Elbert liked “the newspaper atmosphere and accomplishment of my duties” at the Post, but disliked the “restricted opportunities for advancement and creativity,” he wrote in a later job application.

He kept no journals or diaries, but his life story unfolds in his black and white photographs:

  • Holding a pipe in the 1930s, hair slickly combed, and wearing a long jacket and breeches: the quintessential Czech gentleman.
  • On a beached wooden boat with fellow Allied soldiers during World War II, looking worn and bedraggled.
  •  Clutching sunglasses and a valise while a hula dancer in Hawaii serenades him.
  • Lavishing attention on his beloved black poodle in portrait after portrait.

“The only thing he ever seemed to attach himself to were his dogs,” said Mary Carstensen, 83, his next-door neighbor and unofficial caretaker. “He was so mad that we couldn’t have dogs in our complex.”

As a retiree in Dunedin, he lived in a condo with bare walls and shabby furniture at 1082 Loch Haven Drive S. He owned little else except old clothing and shoes.

Carstensen said she is probably the only person who knew Elbert was a millionaire, and he told her just two weeks before he died.

At that time, he told her he thought the art center was somewhere in Tampa, she said.

Elbert was so careful with his money that Carstensen had to secretly throw away his old and blackened bed pillows because otherwise he would never buy new ones, she said.

She also cleaned his house for a while after he fired his cleaning lady for seeking a raise from $15 to $20 per visit, she said.

A photo album, a manila envelope and an 8-by-10-inch box of photographs is all the art center got from Elbert’s estate, apart from the money.

Other than his condo, that’s mostly all he owned, said his lawyer, Henry Dicus.

Dicus met with Elbert before he died, and helped him select the charity that would inherit his fortune.

With no family, Elbert wanted to give his money to charity, but didn’t have one picked out. So Dicus compiled a list of Tampa Bay area nonprofits.

Elbert immediately zeroed in on the arts center.

“He didn’t even have to think about it,” Dicus said.

Now Hannon and Gail Gamble, president of the Dunedin Fine Art Center, are using Elbert’s old passports, job applications, divorce records and photographs to create a timeline of his life for an Oct. 16 event honoring Elbert and his gift.

The art center plans to put $300,000 of Elbert’s donation toward its next renovation, which would include the photography studio, and keep the rest of the money in its endowment, which hits $1.3-million with Elbert’s donation.

Dicus said he wishes he knew what drove Elbert’s wanderlust.

If it were appropriate to get close to his clients, Dicus said, he wouldn’t have minded going out for a few drinks with Elbert.

But that would have been tough, if what neighbors say about Elbert is true. Several said Carstensen was the only person who had regular contact with him.

Carstensen said she often looks out for her sometimes fragile neighbors, bringing them pies and dropping by for conversation.

But with Elbert, things were difficult, she said.

“He was smart, but hard to get along with,” she said.

Elbert was so stubbornly independent that he refused medical care even when he was clearly dying.

A few days before he died, Elbert insisted on driving himself to a doctor’s appointment, even though he was in no shape to do so, Carstensen said. She waited for him to return, but he never did. Elbert was admitted to the hospital.

A nurse told Carstensen he had resisted the move and had asked to call her, thinking she would drive him home again. But he didn’t know her number.

While in the hospital, Elbert fell out of bed and hit his head, putting him into a coma, said Carstensen. He died soon after.

Carstensen said she is convinced he hit his head because he was trying to get out of bed and go home.
At the Fine Art Center, Hannon is just as convinced Elbert had a creative streak.

Admiring photographs taken by Elbert of winding French streets and windblown countryside, he points out that these photographs were developed by hand, in a darkroom.

Hannon would like to think Elbert might have used the darkroom of the Dunedin Fine Art Center for his craft.

Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. No one knows for sure. But they do know one thing. And they can take it to the bank.

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 10:43:12]

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