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  1. News

Little-known man leaves Belleair his $4 million estate

BELLEAIR — Nobody seemed to know John J. Osborne.

He lived alone in a modest stucco home on a dead-end lane, where he spent hours trimming his shrubs. The most neighbors can say is that he seemed polite. Perhaps most unassuming of all, a six-sentence obituary followed his Sept. 6 death. It ended with, "There will be no funeral service."

But in his will, the little-known 79-year-old stranger named the town of Belleair as the sole beneficiary of his estate. That included his house, his furniture, his car.

And, as the town just found out, nearly $4 million in stocks.

"I guess we didn't really realize that the town meant so much to him," said town manager Micah Maxwell.

Town officials hardly knew the man. All they could come up with was that Osborne frequented Belleair's building department to research properties that he wanted to buy.

Why he decided to leave millions to the town remains a guessing game.

Maxwell surmised that Osborne may have drawn inspiration from a Belleair resident who willed the town her waterfront home three years ago. Upon her death, Eleanor Thompson asked the town to convert the property into a park.

For Belleair, a mid-Pinellas town of fewer than 4,000, Osborne's bequest provides a boon to a small budget. It matches the town's $4 million operating budget. It's more than the town expects to collect in property taxes this year.

The gift could loosen the town's conservative budget, the mayor said, calling it a flattering homage. Town employees could see a rare raise. Infrastructure could be improved. Or the money could help cover the $3.5 million purchase of the Belleview Biltmore's golf course on Indian Rocks Road, which Belleair commissioners approved last week.

"He must have known we were on the right track," said Mayor Gary Katica.

The wish list for the $4 million begins Thursday, when the town's finance board meets.

The estate is still going through probate. Osborne's diverse portfolio of stocks will need to be liquidated, and the town is unlikely to receive the money until next year.

Aside from those assets, Osborne seems to have left little else behind.

The quiet man at the end of the street had recently started walking once a week to nearby Morton Plant Hospital. Cancer, he told a neighbor.

Osborne died in hospice and was cremated. His death certificate noted he was divorced. His obituary listed only a sister, Jeanne Artzt, in East Setauket, N.Y.

He served in the Army during the Korean War, the obituary also said. A retiree and collector of antiques, he used to tell a local antique dealer about his career as a bank examiner for the state of New York.

Laura Collum didn't know what a bank examiner was, but they talked about it anyway. He was, she remembered, a good conversationalist, intelligent and gregarious without seeming needy. He liked to talk about antiquing or finances.

At Collum Antiques in Belleair Bluffs, Collum heard about Osborne's search for Mission-style furniture from the 1890s, but she never saw his collection. She knew he liked Tiffany & Co. desk sets, but she never sold him anything.

When real estate agents once used his Mission dining table as a desk, Osborne "just about flipped" as their pens bore into the wood. But a few months ago, he told Collum he had lost interest in antiques.

She wondered if he had sold his collection. Sometimes, she said, people decide they'd rather have the money than the stuff.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or