Business

Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Thanks to a billionaire, 85-year-old can avoid the stairs

Doris Toohey, 85, walked down the stairs at her condo in Brighton with her dog, Bonnie.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Doris Toohey, 85, walked down the stairs at her condo in Brighton with her dog, Bonnie.

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Nearly four months after trudging up four flights of stairs daily — and one nasty fall — 85-year-old Doris Toohey is moving out of her Brighton condo until the broken elevator is fixed — courtesy of a charity funded by billionaire Warren Buffett.

After Toohey’s plight was highlighted in this column in late September, the charity contacted the Globe and asked how it could get in touch with Toohey.

So on Thursday, she will move into a suite at the spiffy new Marriott Residence Inn in nearby Watertown, where the elevators are in good working order. And there she will stay — without paying a dime — until the elevator is finally fixed.

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“How do you thank someone you don’t even know? They just stepped into my life and I’m so grateful,” Toohey told me on Tuesday while taking a break from packing her bags. “I feel like crying just talking about it.”

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It all began last summer when the building’s property manager shut down the only elevator and announced it would take six months to replace it, forcing Toohey and other seniors to climb as many as 56 steps, sometimes carrying groceries or laundry.

A construction crew and a towering crane are scheduled to arrive at the Towne Lyne House condominiums on Tremont Street this week to begin ripping out the 50-year-old elevator. When the work is done, mostly likely in March, Toohey and her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Bonnie, will return home.

But until then, all of Toohey’s expenses at the Residence Inn are being paid by a foundation overseen by Buffett’s sister, Doris Buffett. Warren Buffett is considered one of the most successful investors of all time, estimated to be worth almost $80 billion.

Alex B. Rozek, Doris Buffett’s grandson, spotted the piece in the Globe and set in motion the series of events that led to Toohey’s relocation. Rozek, a Boston-based entrepreneur and investor, sent word to family members that Toohey seemed like an excellent candidate for a helping hand.

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“Alex expressed great concern for Doris and wanted to do something for her,” said Noni Campbell, who helps run the foundation. “He was worried for her, going up and down those stairs. He and his grandmother are wonderful, big-hearted people.”

Doris Buffett also lives in Boston. She plays a pivotal role in distributing her brother’s wealth through a charity that gets hundreds of letters a week from people seeking help. Warren Buffett has announced that he intends to give away most of his wealth in his lifetime, and in 2010 helped create the Giving Pledge, which asks billionaires to pledge at least half their fortunes to charity.

Warren Buffett lacked the time or interest to pick through a pile of often-handwritten letters to find the most worthy so he asked his sister for help. She enlisted a small army of volunteers in what has become the Letters Foundation.

Something about Toohey reminded Rozek of his grandmother — another Doris of about the same age. Toohey studied pictures of Doris Buffett online and announced they have something else in common: “White, puffy hair.”

Alex’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and Doris became a constant in his life growing up. “Alex and Doris are very close,” Campbell said. “When Alex read about Doris Toohey, he thought of his grandmother and knew she would be sympathetic.”

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The foundation did an extensive background check on Toohey, including her finances. Toohey had to submit three personal references and a letter describing her situation. A retired executive secretary to some of Boston’s leading bankers, Toohey passed with flying colors. Toohey grew up in the South End and graduated from Cathedral High School before going to work. She was an only child, never married, and has no close relatives.

Toohey bought her small fourth-floor condo in the 1970s and quickly felt at home making her way around the neighborhood for doctor’s appointments, shopping, and Mass at St. Columbkille. Most days, she took Bonnie out for a walk three times, even when hampered by an arthritic knee.

Since the elevator failed, some days she had too little strength to get down the stairs even once and depended on friends to take Bonnie out, she said.

After the Globe story, Doris Toohey received a half-dozen calls from old friends, some of whom offered to help. Her former boss, who has retired and moved to New York, researched alternative housing online and then drove four-plus hours to Boston to take Toohey on a tour of a senior living community in Quincy. She heard from one co-worker for the first time in 42 years. Her friends at Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS good-naturedly teased her about being a celebrity.

But Toohey felt she couldn’t move from the neighborhood, making the Marriott Residence Inn, on the other side of the Charles River, a good solution.

Toohey faults the building’s board of trustees and professional property managers for neglecting proper upkeep of the building. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she lives in a 72-unit condo, not an apartment building. If she were a tenant, she could report her landlord to city officials. But in her case, there is no landlord, just 72 owners.

The building’s managers did not react sympathetically to Toohey’s plight. On more than one occasion, Toohey was reminded: “This is a condo building, not assisted living.”

Toohey said one manager last week scolded her for “going to the news media” with her story, saying doing so prompted the city of Boston to send inspectors to the building. That kind of scrutiny will only delay completion of the elevator project, Toohey was told.

Campbell declined to say how much the foundation is paying for Toohey’s temporary accommodations but Toohey said it was more than $15,000.

“When I heard that, I said to them, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a lot of money.’ Do you want me to chip in?’ ” Toohey said while sitting on a couch, Bonnie in her lap.

No, that’s all right, the Buffett family replied.

Doris Toohey packed a bag as she prepared for her temporary move to the Marriott Residence.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Doris Toohey packed a bag as she prepared for her temporary move to the Marriott Residence.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.