ATHOL — For years, Katherine Ralys was a faithful visitor to the town library. Her love of thrillers and whodunits spanned the eras, and she eagerly asked what to read next.
Katherine’s husband, Anthony Ralys, was something of a mystery himself. A simple man with spare tastes, he never said much — a peculiar quality for a small-town barber — and guarded his money so carefully it was rumored the couple had never once been out to dinner.
When Katherine died in 2002, Anthony withdrew even further, and lived his final days in just a few rooms of their modest Cape, unwilling to even answer the door. He died two years ago, at 89.
So when it was announced last week that he had honored his wife’s memory with a $1.4 million donation to the library, residents were stunned. They marveled over how the quiet, thrifty couple, who showed virtually no outward signs of wealth, managed to sock away so much.
“I almost fell over backwards,” said Agatha Salkaus, who worked with Katherine at an insurance company.
Ralys’s relatives were also stunned, but in a different way: after the library donation, there was relatively little left for his family, including a niece who had cared for him for years. The couple did not have children.
After Ralys died, his niece, Jacqueline Ralys, asked the estate to compensate her for the years of round-the-clock assistance she had provided, according to her brother, Tom Ralys. The will provided 5 percent shares of the estate for Tom and Jacqueline, but Jacqueline had retired thinking her uncle would leave her enough money that she would be comfortable.
“She did it for him because he was family,” Tom Ralys wrote in an e-mail. “But he assured her she would be compensated in his will.”
When Jacqueline died suddenly last year of a brain aneurysm at age 66, Tom Ralys let the matter drop.
“This has been very difficult for me and my family,” he said, adding that “it was never my money to have.”
The library plans to honor the couple with a plaque. Tom Ralys said he has asked the library if his sister could be honored as well.
In an interview, Tom Ralys said his uncle “didn’t want to live” after his wife died.
“He just wanted to die,” he said. “But he was healthy — healthy as could be.”
Relatives had little idea that Ralyses had amassed such a fortune. Tom Ralys said he knew his uncle had made good investments, mainly in municipal bonds, and was always extremely frugal.
After his uncle’s death, Tom visited his home and found he had kept the same fixtures and furnishings for decades. Barry Robichaud, who took over Tony’s Barbershop (now called Upper Cuts), said Anthony used to make his own neck strips from paper towels and once built a flyswatter out of a coat hanger and a piece of vinyl upholstery. Robichaud said he and Ralys did not get along.
Ralys was a good barber, said Joseph Neri, who runs Joe’s Barber Shop across the street from Ralys’s former store. He was a simple man, he said, with a quiet demeanor and spare tastes.
Salkaus, Katherine’s former co-worker, said the couple often talked about taking a vacation, but always seemed to put it off at the last minute.
James Herbert, who was Katherine Ralys’s boss at Cornerstone Insurance Agency, said he wondered whether Anthony Ralys’s aversion to travel had to do with his experience in World War II, when he was in the Army Air Corps.
Ralys was a crew member of a B-24 heavy bomber that was shot down over enemy-occupied territory in Europe. He spent five months in an internment camp in Sweden, according to his obituary.
Katherine was far more sociable, according to those who knew her. As an office manager for the insurance agency, she would often greet clients as they came in.
“Everybody would talk to her, and she’d talk to everybody,” he said.
When Katherine retired in 1991 after 36 years, Cornerstone threw her a dinner party. But as Herbert recalls, her husband didn’t come.
Debra Blanchard, who worked at the library for 43 years and retired last year as director, remembers seeing Katherine there as far back as the 1960s. A well-dressed woman with striking dark hair and a broad smile, Katherine made an impression when she visited, Blanchard said.
In later years, Katherine rarely had new clothes but maintained the same tidy appearance, those who knew her said.
In his will, Anthony Ralys made it clear the gift was in his wife’s memory, as well as his own. He never spoke to the library about the donation and was not involved in library affairs, she said.
“I think it’s sweet that it was so important to him because it was so important to her,” Blanchard said.
The gift must be used for “renovations, additions, or building improvements.” The library, which completed a multimillion-dollar expansion a few years ago, plans to save the money for future needs.
While stunned by the generosity of the gift, Blanchard regrets she doesn’t know more about what the couple had in mind, and why they decided to give virtually their entire life savings away.
“It’s just a lost opportunity. That’s all I think,” she said. “I would have liked to tell him thank you. Her, too.”