One in a Million

Terence Kahn was not known for living large or dolling out even small sums of money. When he died a very rich man, it surprised almost everyone who knew him, especially those tasked with the job of giving away his fortune.
Illustration by Anna Godeassi

Margaret Sheehan describes the phone call as one of those too-good-to-be-true offers that nonprofits get from time to time. It came out of the blue, late in the afternoon on an unseasonably warm day in October 2021. Sheehan, executive director of the volunteer-based Teachers’ Treasures, had just arrived at her northside condo and parked her car. As she walked toward the back entrance, her cellphone lit up. She didn’t recognize the number, but she answered anyway.

The caller introduced himself as an Indianapolis attorney and proceeded to ask Sheehan if Teachers’ Treasures (which provides free school supplies to more than 6,000 Marion County teachers) would be able to handle “a transformational gift.” How much of a gift? The man informed her that the amount would be anywhere from half a million to a million dollars. Sheehan took a deep breath and told him to hold on. She needed to sit down.

Margaret Sheehan of Teachers’ Treasures and attorney Dwayne Isaacs.

“He called at the perfect time, just as we were engaged in conversation about how to grow the organization,” Sheehan recalls. As she eased herself into a patio chair, two questions immediately came to mind. First … what if this is a scam? And second … what if it’s not?

Three months later, Diane Markle, then a personal banker at the downtown Star Financial Bank, received a similar spiel from the same mysterious caller. Her unsolicited offer came on a blustery morning in late January 2022 after she pulled into a parking garage off Monument Circle, on her way to a meeting. The person on the other end of the line was calling about a potentially large donation to Folds of Honor Indiana, a veterans’ organization where Markle volunteered. 

To Markle, the conversation felt a little too far-fetched, a little too “Oh yeah, I have a buddy who’s got millions,” she says. Yet she, too, wondered if this unexpected proposal could be legit. Either way, she wasn’t about to hang up. Folds of Honor is a national nonprofit that provides scholarships to spouses and children of fallen service members. The Hoosier chapter is a bare-bones operation where volunteers carry out this mission without a brick-and-mortar headquarters—just a post office box. “I didn’t care how much money it was,” Markle says. “If it was $100, we’d be blessed.”

Sheehan and Markle weren’t alone in their sudden good fortune. Over the course of roughly a year, more than a dozen Indianapolis nonprofits would hear from the same attorney saying he was distributing funds on behalf of an estate. Each organization was assured that there would be no lengthy application process to slog through, no need to turn in annual reports or financial disclosures. They needed only to submit a few pages describing how the money would be used and sign a simple one-page agreement.

There had to be a catch, right? In fact, a few of the nonprofits that received messages from the attorney with the no-strings-attached offer never even returned his calls. Sheehan and Markle, on the other hand, were among the donees who did their homework and quickly discovered that the caller, Dwayne Isaacs, was indeed an attorney with the firm Dentons Bingham Greenebaum. More importantly, he represented a 78-year-old benefactor from the south side of Indianapolis who had recently died, leaving instructions to give away all of his money.

A Modest Life

Isaacs met Terence Kahn in the mid-1990s through The Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis, a grant-making entity formed in 1985 from proceeds of the Metro Health HMO sale. Isaacs was the foundation’s new attorney. Terry Kahn was a founding board member, representing Roudebush VA Medical Center, where he served as chief of human resources. The attorney, whose focus was on business and tax-planning services, quickly picked up on Kahn’s reputation as a strong personality—stubborn, opinionated, socially awkward, and somewhat of a loner. He was also known to be notoriously frugal. Former foundation president and CEO Betty Wilson described Kahn as a committed board member who was “always kind, in a curmudgeonly way,” though someone you would swear “doesn’t have two nickels to rub together.” What a shock it would be to find out, years later, just how many nickels Kahn had squirrelled away.

While Isaacs engaged in small talk with Kahn, knowing enough to stick to sports and steer clear of politics, they never socialized outside of foundation meetings and events. When Kahn left the board in 2010, Isaacs wished him well, doubting their paths would cross again. He was wrong. A few months later, Kahn called, suggesting they have lunch. Isaacs agreed, thinking it would be one and done. He was wrong again.

Kahn called every month for the next 10 years, and the two became regular lunch companions. They always went Dutch. Kahn chose the restaurants, often selecting places that took coupons. Isaacs would get a call from an unknown number if his lunch companion was running late. Kahn never owned a cellphone, something he considered a crazy expense, especially when he could just borrow a phone from someone else in a pinch, even a complete stranger. 

Their lunches typically lasted a good two hours. Kahn usually ordered either a burger and fries or bacon and eggs while Isaacs stuck to salads. Over the course of these lunches, Kahn shared details about his life, beginning with his parents who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and settled in the United States. He and his sister grew up in Tucson, where their father was a doctor at the VA hospital. He went to the University of Southern California, earning degrees in psychology and public administration while lettering in tennis. After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years in Vietnam as a captain assigned to the supply chain. When his tour of duty ended, Kahn worked for the VA Medical Centers, first in New Orleans and then in Nashville, Tennessee, before landing at Roudebush in 1976, where he would spend the last 27 years of his career.  

The man lived in an unassuming bi-level home in the solidly middle-class Holly Hills subdivision off Southport Road. He never married and never had kids. His sister, who wound up in the Chicago area, died in her 40s, leaving behind a son and a daughter. Kahn was estranged from them for reasons unknown to Isaacs, and he never mentioned any other relatives.

One day a few years into this lunchtime routine, Kahn announced that he needed what he described as “a simple will.” When Isaacs asked how much he had, Kahn told him that he was probably sitting on $3 million to $4 million. The amount came as a surprise to Isaacs. Yet, he knew his friend was tight with his finances, and that he had inherited some money from his parents. It would not be beyond the pale that there would be a considerable amount of money stashed away.

When Isaacs asked where he wanted all of his money to go, Kahn merely stipulated that he did not want it given to his alma mater, USC. “They have enough money,” he said. When pressed, Kahn suggested that his fortune find its way “to charity,” perhaps organizations that help kids and teachers.

Only after Isaacs suggested that Kahn do some research and consider doling out chunks of his money while he was still alive did he reluctantly reach out to a few schools, offering to fund some teachers’ projects and shop for supplies (while also taking advantage of the tax write-offs). The endeavor didn’t last long, though. Principals stopped returning his calls after Kahn began micromanaging his charitable contributions, buying things on sale—things he thought teachers needed instead of the things they had specifically asked for. Isaacs told him to stop nickel and diming. “You’ve got $4 million,” he told him. “You’ll never give it all away at $2,000 a pop.”

In the meantime, Isaacs continued to push his client to name some beneficiaries. Kahn remained defiantly noncommittal. “I don’t care,” he would insist. “You decide. I’ll be dead.” There were, however, three stipulations: He wanted to be cremated. He did not want a funeral. And he absolutely did not want money spent on an obituary.

Isaacs accepted the challenge. It seemed no one else was close enough to the multimillionaire to tend to his affairs. However, time would reveal that a handful of people in Indianapolis had Kahn’s back. 

The Allies

One of those people was Vance McLarren, a healthcare executive currently based in Denver. He met Kahn in 1988, the year that McLarren began a fellowship at Roudebush, and later worked at the IU School of Medicine before his career took him out west. While Kahn could be a handful, McLarren says he also had a good sense of humor and, like him, a passion for sports. 

While they weren’t best friends by any stretch, the two men became “sports buddies,” driving to South Bend for USC-Notre Dame games. They hit the road together several times for March Madness, once watching 28 straight hours of live basketball. A longtime volunteer with the Indiana Sports Corp, Kahn was quick to sign up when the city hosted amateur sports events, especially the swimming and diving championships. He also splurged on season tickets to the Colts, Pacers, and Butler men’s basketball games, selling any extra seats he bought to cover the cost of his own.

McLarren bought several of the Butler tickets, which were mid-court, 10 rows up, prime spots for catching all the action. As a bonus, Kahn was a member of the donor-based Bulldog Club. Just before halftime, he would leave for the hospitality suite and return carrying two jumbo sodas, his pockets stuffed with complimentary bags of peanuts and pretzels. 

In addition to being a rabid sports fan, Kahn was an enthusiastic Costco member. McLarren says he remembers going to Kahn’s house, which was well-stocked with paper towels, toilet paper, and other household supplies he had purchased in bulk from the warehouse chain, and thinking, “Man, if the apocalypse ever happens, I’m going to Kahn’s.” He doubts that the purchases were prompted by any fear of impending disaster, but rather by deals too good to pass up. “Terry was beyond frugal,” he says. “He was squeaky frugal.”

During his time in Indy, he had those same monthly lunches with Kahn that Dwayne Isaacs had, coupons and all. After McLarren left Indiana in 2014, he doubted their paths would cross again … until Kahn called a couple years later asking him to serve as the executor of his estate.

Alexa Helm also played a significant role in Kahn’s life, especially toward the end. After she graduated from Butler in 1999, Kahn hired her as a human resources assistant. Helm says that job title meant “doing a bit of everything,” including traveling with Kahn to Washington, D.C. a few times for federal regulatory meetings. She acknowledges that working with Kahn took a special kind of person. “You had to have a little patience,” she says, adding that he loved his job and treated her well, sometimes bringing her an apple pie or other random things he had picked up at Costco.

Alexa Helm

Three-and-a-half years into her job, Helm left the VA for nursing school. The two lost touch for a while but eventually reconnected. By then, Helm was married with a son and working as a nurse practitioner. She and Kahn developed a friendship, meeting for dinner four to five times a year, often inking in the discounted Devour Indy dates on their calendar. She knew Kahn’s prickly persona. She also saw his soft, kind-hearted side. “He wanted to share in his own way,” she says. “It just looked different from the way other people do it.” 

Alexa and Terry

A couple years later, Kahn’s health started to decline. Helm says he had non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, which he managed for a time but would ultimately lead to his death. In 2018, he was also diagnosed with kidney cancer, having one kidney removed.

Isaacs, the attorney, and McLarren, the executor, met for the first time in the months that followed. Together, they urged the ailing Kahn to finalize his will, in spite of his oft-repeated response: “I don’t care. You decide. I’ll be dead.” They wouldn’t know about Alexa Helm until the final year of Kahn’s life, when his health took a substantial turn for the worse and he was in and out of the hospital. Helm, ever the devoted friend, helped set up medical and hospice care, looking out for him until the end—all during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when patient visits were either virtual or separated by a plexiglass barrier. By the time restrictions were lifted in the last weeks of his life, Kahn was no longer aware of where he was or why he couldn’t go home.

But in the months before that, the man never known to reveal his vulnerable side made a point of telling Helm how much he appreciated her help and friendship. Helm still gets emotional talking about her former employer and friend. “He was a lot of work, but in a sweet way,” she says. “I really had a fondness for him.”

Outrageous Fortune

Although Kahn had already instructed Isaacs on where to find his documents once he died, he wouldn’t reveal his net worth until pressed to do so in the last month of his life. While Isaacs and McLarren knew that Kahn was a prodigious saver, they were floored when they saw the numbers. Kahn was worth more than $13 million. A small portion of Kahn’s fortune stemmed from his inheritance, but he had also been a savvy investor. “It blew my doors away,” McLarren says. 

Isaacs’s reaction was, “Dammit, Terry. Why weren’t you honest with me?” 

Kahn died on January 31, 2021, alone in a nursing facility. He was 78 years old. Isaacs, McLarren, and their wives spent two days going through his house, a physically and emotionally exhausting task. It looked as if time stood still in the 1970s-era home. Most of the furniture and decor were original. The closets, drawers, and storage space were packed to the gills with random surplus items, such as 20 brand-new boxcutters or 100 toothbrushes. They came across half a dozen unopened boxes shipped from Vietnam in 1972. Wondering what treasures they’d find inside, they opened one of the parcels to find “water glasses, like the ones that cost $2 apiece,” McLarren says. The rest of the boxes were filled with more of the same.

They also found Kahn’s Army uniform, medals, and the letters of commendation he earned, along with his USC letterman’s jacket and photos from long ago. They were personal things that speak to the man, things a family member would have found value in keeping. Kahn, however, had no close relatives. McLarren recalls thinking Kahn “had all this wealth and no one to share it with. At the end of the day, it goes into a dumpster.” 

They still had no idea what to do with their friend’s ashes. Or the vast remainder of his money.

Isaacs says having to distribute Kahn’s portfolio initially weighed heavily on him. He and McLarren wanted to do right by Kahn by giving to organizations he would have identified with and by seeking out channels where his money would have the most meaningful impact. It involved a good deal of time and research. In the end, they decided to distribute “unrestricted gifts” ranging from $500,000 to $2 million to a dozen nonprofits. By the time recipients picked up the phone, Isaacs was done vetting and ready to ask, “If I give you a million dollars, how will you use it?”

Isaacs’s first call was to Coburn Place, which provides transitional housing and assistance to families impacted by domestic violence. Vice president of development Julie Henson was overwhelmed, not just by the size of the million-dollar gift but by how it could be used. “It felt like the answer to our deepest dreams and worries,” she says. 

Coburn Place’s 100-year-old, three-story flagship building was “falling apart at the seams.” Their two elevators constantly broke down and required repair, as did the building’s 35-year-old HVAC system. These were vital yet “invisible needs” that donors don’t always line up to fund. Henson says the board had already met multiple times to debate whether they should pull from cash reserves or turn to a capital campaign. She says word of Kahn’s gift “felt miraculous. It addressed two truly unsolvable problems we had.” It also seemed in line with Kahn’s practical approach to life—as well as his soft spot: watching out for kids. While he wasn’t interested in having his name on things, there is a plaque honoring Kahn next to one of the elevators he replaced. 

Margaret Sheehan with Teacher’s Treasures says it could have been easy for Isaacs to “call up the big dogs”—the marquee organizations with a lot of name recognition. On an entirely different scale, Kahn’s gift enabled Teachers’ Treasures to establish its first endowment, with its first million-dollar gift. “At that level, you’re taken very seriously,” Sheehan says. Eight months later, Teachers’ Treasures received another $580,000 from Kahn’s estate, adding to the endowment. Sheehan says if she could thank Kahn in person, “I’d be crying, and I’d hope he’d be happy with his legacy. It’s one that will live on for a long, long time.”  

Diane Markle also “cried like an idiot” when she found out the $1.1 million gift to Folds of Honor was indeed for real. The largest prior donation had been $50,000, but this gift allowed the all-volunteer organization to hire Markle as its first full-time employee. And it came just as Folds of Honor expanded the program to include first responders. Its scholarships, which average $4,800 a year, cover everything from private preschool and trade school to tuition for college and graduate school. And for the first time, Folds of Honor will be able to fund 10 scholarships a year in perpetuity. Markle calls the gift “the answer to all our prayers.”

One of the last calls Isaacs made was to the Baxter YMCA, just two miles from where Kahn lived. It received $1.2 million for upgrades and renovations to its sports facilities, “a game changer,” says executive director John Schwentker. It is also fitting, given Kahn’s passion for youth and sports.

The gift will pay for two artificial turf soccer parks, with lights and bleachers, as well as a 40-yard open turf field, all of which can be used for multiple sports and summer camp. Plus, the donation covers maintenance of the fields and allows someone else to pay for naming rights, opening the door to further enhancements. Schwentker calls the gift “immeasurable.” He says it’s not just the Y that benefits, but “the kids without fields and our partners in the community. It will have an impact for many, many years.” 

McLarren also wanted to recognize those committed to medical research and philanthropy. He reached out to the Indiana University Foundation, providing $2 million to establish the Terrence P. Kahn Liver Disease Program of Excellence Fund and $1.5 million for a Professorship of Nephrology in Kahn’s name. He also gifted the Rocky Mountain Adventist Healthcare Foundation, which sends medical teams to developing nations, with $1 million for an endowment. Other organizations receiving gifts from $500,000 to $1 million include Little Red Door Cancer Agency, Boys & Girls Clubs of Indianapolis, HVAF of Indiana, Pathway to Recovery, and The Advancement Center for Washington Township Schools and North Central Alumni.

The Multimillion-Dollar Question

Recipients weren’t the only ones surprised to hear the donor’s backstory. Longtime neighbors were astounded to learn of the multimillionaire next door. “Oh my, I wish I’d been friendlier,”  jokes one of them, Carol Templeton. She described Kahn as a nice neighbor who was always congenial, always had treats for the neighborhood dogs. She says, given his position at the VA, “I knew he probably had some money and was fairly rich, but not that rich.”

Beth Jenkins and Lisa Stevenson, who lived across from Kahn for years, were also blown away at his net worth. They remember one Halloween when, instead of candy, their neighbor gave away school supplies left over from some of his ill-fated shopping excursions. Kahn’s treats did not sit well with the neighborhood kids. Jenkins says they’d open their bags, point to Kahn’s house and say in utter disbelief, “That man over there, he gave us a notebook!” And yet he was a good and generous neighbor who mowed the couple’s lawn when they had health issues, replaced their damaged mailbox, tried to pay for repairs to their broken garage door, and often surprised them with something he picked up at Costco. Though he was quirky and difficult at times, Stevenson says, “Kahn was very nice to us, a good guy, a good friend.” 

But someone who could buy every house in the neighborhood and still have money left over? No way. 

So, why didn’t Kahn share more while alive, or even live just a wee bit larger himself? We posed the question to Kimble Richardson, a licensed mental health counselor with Community Fairbanks Behavioral Health. Richardson did not know Kahn but says it could have been a combination of things, ranging from the era in which he grew up, how he was raised, whether he suffered a childhood trauma, or if  perhaps something happened in Vietnam. Some personality styles make it hard to connect with people, Richardson says. When Kahn did, it seemed to be on his own terms. Regardless, Richardson says Kahn “knew enough to pick out people who were trustworthy and would not let him be taken advantage of.” 

Isaacs says that what began as such a large responsibility for him wound up feeling like a tremendous gift as well. It allowed him “to meet some of the pretty amazing people running these organizations … to see the reactions and just how transformative Terry’s legacy will be for years to come.” He just wishes Kahn could have experienced the joy he ultimately brought to so many others.

Kahn left no instructions for his ashes. Isaacs tried to find out where his parents were buried but came up empty-handed. The funeral director provided the perfect solution. Given Kahn’s military service and his lifelong career at the VA, she suggested Kahn’s ashes be interred in a columbarium at the Marion National Cemetery in Marion, Indiana. It’s the final resting place for more than 13,000 soldiers from the Civil War to present day.

On April 12, 2021, she and Isaacs made the 75-mile trip north for a proper farewell. They stood inside a funeral tent with Kahn’s urn as two soldiers provided military honors—the ceremonial bugling of taps with the folding of an American flag presented to Isaacs. Afterward, they went to the columbarium where Kahn’s ashes were sealed in a niche. 

Isaacs believes Kahn would be pleased. He served his country and now, through his posthumous gifts, would serve his community in equally heroic ways. The correlation is not lost on those who were part of his select inner circle. The man known for being painfully frugal in life would become celebrated for his extraordinary generosity in death. 

Feature illustration by Anna Godessi.