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Disney's maid wills fortune to charity

Walt Disney's housekeeper was a crusty, chain-smoking character who was more Hazel than Mary Poppins. In the end, Thelma Howard proved to be a fairy godmother.

The frugal woman who ran the Disney household for 30 years left half her $9-million estate to poor and disabled children.

"We're delighted. It was unexpected. We will be making $250,000 grants per year," Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, said Thursday.

The California Community Foundation, which administers $130-million-plus to charities each year, will assist the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation in dispensing the money.

Howard died June 10, days before her 80th birthday. She left the other half of her fortune to her son, Michael, her only child from a brief marriage. Now in his mid-50s, he is in a home for the developmentally disabled.

So where did all her money come from?

"Starting back in the 1950s, she was given a few shares of stock for Christmas and birthdays and that sort of thing. She was told to hang onto it, and she did. She never sold a share of it," Shakely said. "I don't think she knew what it was worth. She had great faith in the Disneys and wouldn't part with it."

The stock's value skyrocketed in the 1990s. The number of shares Howard held wasn't revealed.

The foundation will provide cultural, educational and immunization programs, among other things.

Howard joined the Disney household in 1951, the same year her boss' Alice in Wonderland came out. Known affectionately as Fou-Fou, she was a live-in housekeeper and cook for Disney, his wife, Lillian, and their two daughters. Disney called her "the real-life Mary Poppins."

"She was a combination between real loving and kind of crusty," Shakely said. "She was a chain-smoking, no-nonsense type, but very loving, like TV's old Hazel character."

Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller fondly recalled growing up with Howard, whom she described as a perfectionist who made sure the refrigerator was always filled with hot dogs. It seemed Walt Disney often came home from work, stopped at the refrigerator and grabbed a few wieners _ one for the family poodle, Lady, and two for himself. He gobbled them down cold.

In the Disney home, Howard, a native of Southwick, Idaho, was a long way from the misfortune that dogged her youth. Her mother died in childbirth when Howard was 6 years old, and her sister burned to death in a kitchen fire.

Howard retired in 1981 as her health began to fail. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills on a slope overlooking the Disney Studios.