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A lasting legacy: English couple leaves $750K to Perham

Submitted photo John and Annie Wardale sit together in front of their home on Rush Lake.

Thirty years after their marriage in Kent, England, John and Annie Wardale traveled to Perham for a relaxing North woods vacation.

Something happened in those few days. They fell in love with the scenery, the community and its residents. A few years later, the English couple made their permanent home on Rush Lake.

The two lived most of their lives in England, travel-ling first to America when John took a position with Caterpillar in Aurora, Ill. But when it was time to decide a location worthy of their legacy, they chose Perham.

In 1992 - 11 years after moving to Perham -- John visited Dennis Happel from the Dennis Happel Law Office to draw up a will. While it may have seemed business as usual, Happel soon realized this visit was the start of something special.

John requested his and his wife's will to include a hefty donation to the Perham community - $750,000 when all was said and done.

It was the largest donation Happel has seen anyone leave the city, but that wasn't what surprised him most. What was more intriguing was the couple's dedication to a lake town they didn't know existed most of their lives.

With no children, and loose relations with relatives back home in England, the Wardales felt their estate should remain with their larger family - the one they discovered among the people of Perham.

"They loved this community," Happel said.

John passed away in 2005, leaving Annie in control of the will. While she tweaked a few aspects of the document, she remained true to her husband's charitable wish.

Shortly after Annie's death on June 28, 2010, the Perham Memorial Hospital, The 549 Family Foundation and the Perham Area Foundation received some good news: They were about to receive substantial gifts.

Sue Von Ruden, foundation director for Perham Memorial Hospital, was shocked and touched when she learned of the Wardales' contribution.

The Wardales were a healthy couple, not requiring much care by the hospital. But that didn't stop them from seeing the value the hospital has in the community.

They left $375,000 to the hospital foundation, the largest gift it has received.

In their will, the Wardales specified the donation be used for children, cancer care and memory care. And that's exactly what the foundation intends to do with the gift.

"It's a great gift of this magnitude that allows you to do some great things in those areas," Von Ruden said.

Annie's love of animals and passion for education prompted the couple to allocate the remaining funds to the Perham Area Foundation, to be used toward resources for animal care, and the 549 Family Foundation.

"It's my understanding that Mrs. Wardale was an animal lover," said Perham Area Foundation President Darrin Swanson.

While Annie never had a pet of her own, Sandra Walden, who lived next to the couple on Rush Lake, said Annie made it known that pets were her priority.

Annie wanted to use a portion of the funds to help build a stray animal support system in the Perham area. With the county's humane society located in Fergus Falls, it was somewhat of an inconvenience to help those animals who were wandering on the east side of the county.

The details regarding how much they'll receive and how the funds will specifically be used are not yet concrete, but Swenson said the board is looking into creating a scholarship fund in the Wardales' name to benefit someone going into an animal profession.

"We certainly intend to do good by her great gift to her community," Swanson said.

Along with charitable donations to the health and animal communities, the Wardales also had a passion for the education system in Perham, the motivating factor behind their gift to the 549 Family Foundation.

When John first met with Happel, he requested the money to be used for graduates and capital projects. There was just one string attached to the donation - they wanted the money to be spent, rather than put in a savings account, Happel said.

A simple life in Perham

John and Annie weren't known around town for their contributions or involvement with the community. Aside from those who knew the couple from the lake or John's frequent visits to the Perham Area Community Center (PACC), they largely went unnoticed.

"They weren't very involved in anything," Walden said.

As simple as their roots, the couple enjoyed regular chores around the home. For John, tinkering outside and spending hours on the riding lawnmower was a regular source of enjoyment and entertainment.

"He wanted to mow all the neighbors' lawns and mow them really short," Walden said.

Annie enjoyed cooking minced meat pies, popovers and bread pudding - dishes Walden said she had down to an art.

Walden and her husband, Peter, got to know John and Annie over the years through stories about England and the Wardales' travels around the world, especially to their favorite destination: Fiji.

While the two were no strangers to global adventures, Annie didn't have much of a desire to travel after John passed away. The two weren't entirely close to relatives back home, aside from their nephew, Colin Denny, who visited regularly from England.

Instead, Annie had two goals she hoped to accomplish before her time on earth was up: to be worth a million dollars and to live to be 90 years old, a feat that would result in a letter from the Queen of England.

Annie fell short of both goals, passing away at 89, with just shy of $1 million to her name. But for those on the receiving ends of donations from John and Annie, their legacy will far outweigh the two goals she never saw carried out.

In fact, recipients say the couple may just have spearheaded a movement of giving back that will be continued by others who consider Perham a place worth investing in.

"(Giving) is a way to give life meaning past death," Happel said.

For organizations aiming to grow for the sake of the community, such as the Perham Area Foundation, the donation given by the Wardales has significant meaning.

"It's just a wonderful thing - a big gift," Swanson said. "We love the generosity of the Perham community, especially the Wardales."

With the Perham Memorial Hospital Foundation in its first few years of existence, Von Ruden said it's encouraging to know that others are thinking of the hospital as an organization worthy of charitable contributions.

"Hopefully it will put a spark in people to consider the hospital as a place to leave a charitable gift," she said.

If others follow in the Wardales' footsteps, their contributions could stretch beyond those who immediately benefit - it could mark the beginning of a tradition with endless possibilities.

"I hope it makes other people think," Von Ruden said.