How a Housekeeper Wound Up Becoming a Millionaire

When Thelma Howard entered the home of Walt Disney in 1951, she never dreamed she would work there as a live-in housekeeper/cook for Disney, his wife Lillian and their two children for the next 30 years. It was a long way from her childhood home near Southwick, Idaho, but she brought her dreams with her. Her dreams weren’t lavish — all she wanted was to help children’s dreams come true. Thelma was a quick-witted woman who loved football and the color pink. She smoked cigarettes, played a mean game of gin rummy, and baked delicious boysenberry pies. Walt Disney referred to her as “the real-life Mary Poppins.” She was a perfectionist in her work, making sure the Disneys were well cared for. Thelma was treated with fondness, and each holiday season Disney would reward her and other employees with a gift of Disney stock. Of course, it wasn’t worth much then, and most of the employees would have preferred cash. In 1981, Howard retired to a modest 2-bedroom bungalow in West Los Angeles. Her health began failing, and just days before her 80th birthday, she passed away. She was buried in a pink casket at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the Disney Studios. In her will, she left half her estate to her son Michael and the other half to benefit disadvantaged and homeless children. Her will totaled more than $9 million. It was discovered that she had never sold any of her Disney stock, which had grown over the years to 192,755 shares.