The gift of Dorothy Thomas: shining a light into the future

MANY of us know someone who valued money and material possessions more than anything else.

Often, such as in the famous tale of the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, these people are redeemed and end up becoming believers in giving to those less fortunate.

For 15 years, Ballarat students of all backgrounds have shared in more than $400,000 thanks to a wealthy, yet reclusive, local benefactor. 

Like Scrooge, this unlikely philanthropist valued her hard-earned money above many things. At one point, she wished to take her fortune to the grave. 

But on her deathbed she was convinced to set up a scholarship to help promising students pursue a higher education.

This week, 16 students – eight male, eight female – from Ballarat’s secondary schools, both public and private - were each handed a cheque worth $2000, one of the wealthiest local scholarships on offer.

Now her legacy is egalitarian generosity, rather than personal wealth. With Christmas just days away, a fresh tale of redemption has risen in Ballarat.

Not much is known about Dorothy Thomas, the shrewd businesswoman from Creswick who made a mint buying and selling property.

A fierce person with an untiring work ethic, Dorothy was a deal-doer who loved nothing more than making a quick buck.

 She was a self-made woman, who didn’t come from money or suffer fools. After dropping out of school in Year 8 she did a secretarial course, but she always wished to have gone on to university.

Dorothy’s associates say she valued her privacy and didn’t open up to many people, preferring to keep her cards close to her chest. 

“Dorothy was an unusual lady, a very private person. She was very protective of what she had built. To the extent that she didn’t know what to do with her money,” says Dorothy’s lawyer Paul James.

Paul got to know Dorothy well during her time working the property markets in Ballarat and Geelong and she would often spend time with his family.

He says Dorothy liked to show off the riches she had accumulated through the Red Shop tearooms in Sturt St and then real estate.

She would wear full-length fur coats and expensive rings, while being driven around town in a flashy Mercedes Benz. 

There was nothing more important than knowing the value of a dollar and Dorothy would do whatever she could to avoid unnecessarily spending her money.

However, as is typically the case in these stories, success in one part of life came at the expense of another.

Dorothy had no children and very few friends. When it came time to write the will and decide who should get her substantial inheritance, there was no one to give it to. 

Both of her parents had died, as had her husband. Charity wasn’t on the top of Dorothy’s agenda, believing people should have to work hard for their living.

It took many long discussions with Paul to change Dorothy’s mind - although the form of how this endowment took place was vitally important. 

“If someone was going to get some of her money then they had to earn it,” says Paul.

“It all revolved around work ethic and she didn’t want the money or capital itself to be given away.”

As Dorothy was preparing 

for open heart surgery at Geelong Hospital, Paul drew up a trust deed that would receive a share of her estate if she 

didn’t come out. 

She made it clear this sum was to be invested, with the return to provide the money required scholarships. 

Dorothy rasked that only people like herself, those who didn’t mind hard work, would be rewarded with the scholarship. They also had to be committed to further education, whether university or TAFE.

“It was for students who had a high work ethic, not just academic but in sport, the arts, family, school, right across the board,” he says.

“They also had to show that right through their schooling, from year 7 to year 12, but also have goals into the future.”

At the request of Paul, she also appointed the husbands of her two friends, Beverley McBride and Yvonne Tunbridge, as fellow trustees.

“I said I need somebody in case I run off with it and she just eyeballed me, I’ll never forget it, and she said ‘you wouldn’t be game’,” he says with a laugh.

When Dorothy died at age 75 in 1995, Paul and his fellow trustees Stan McBride and Bob Tunbridge got to work to make the scholarship a reality.

In 1999, the Dorothy Irene Ellis-Thomas scholarship was first presented in Ballarat. Paul says it took some time to get off the ground, but is now a fixture of awards nights at each school. He reckons no other scholarship exists like this in regional Victoria.

Paul says the students who receive the scholarships at the end of each year are exceptional. The schools nominate the students they believe are worthy of the award, who Paul then interviews to see if Dorothy would approve. 

“I really challenge the kids with the questions that I ask them,” he says.

“I ask them for their definition of success. Ironically, of all these kids in the 15 years, not one of them has said money. You then know you’ve got the right kid.”

It doesn’t matter what the students spend their money on, says Paul. He reckons most end up putting it towards the costs of getting an education. 

Ballarat Grammar School student John Wilson received the scholarship this year. He will go on to study aerospace (space) engineering next year at the University of Sydney.

He says the money will be useful in helping pay for flights to and from Sydney when he needs them.

“Also, all the books and stuff like that, getting set up. I’m not sure how much all that stuff will cost, so it’s nice knowing I have enough money to pay for it.”

After 15 years, the Dorothy Irene Ellis-Thomas trust is well and truly established, with the investments doing well enough through the global financial crisis to continue providing the scholarship.

Bob has since died and Paul is looking for someone to take the scholarship on to its next stage. He and Stan believe it will live on in perpetuity. 

“It will hopefully be there beyond myself and Stan,” says Paul.

“Just because Dorothy died it doesn’t mean her journey is finished. I think she would be absolutely amazed that her money could do so much.”

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