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Brown: The quiet man died with a secret

James A. Flavin (front row, right corner in letter jacket) shown here with his St. Ignatius high school classmates in 1962. | Provided photo

James A. Flavin wore old clothes, drove a beat-up old car and lived alone in a small home he had inherited from his parents in a poor inner-city neighborhood.

When he died a year ago at age 71 with no obvious family in the picture, his fellow parishioners at St. Adrian’s Catholic Church in Marquette Park came together to give him a proper funeral and burial.

I wrote a column about it headlined “Requiem for a Quiet Man.” The point, I guess, was that this unassuming individual whose life had seemed to mysteriously veer off course as a young adult had nonetheless left his mark through his simple devotion to the church.

What I didn’t know at the time, what even his few old friends can still hardly imagine, is that Flavin died a fairly wealthy man.

A safe deposit box discovered months after Flavin’s death turned up an extensive portfolio of stocks and other investments that pushed the estimated value of his estate above $3.4 million.


Included in that total is $1.2 million in stock in Walgreen’s, where Flavin worked for a period of his life as a short order cook in one of the old Wag’s restaurants.

Although college educated as an accountant, Flavin never worked in the field after receiving a medical discharge from officer candidate school during the Vietnam era. Flavin held small jobs sporadically throughout his life.

News of Flavin’s wealth came as a shock, said his old St. Ignatius classmate Collins Fitzpatrick, recalling how Flavin would beg off class reunion dinners at Connie’s Pizza because he said he couldn’t afford it.

“This was amazing to everybody,” Fitzpatrick said.

The first inventory of Flavin’s assets, conducted by the Cook County Public Administrator’s office, valued the estate at barely $53,000.

Then the safe deposit box, which also contained what appeared to be a handwritten will, was found.

“Then it went from just another case to something quite extraordinary,” said Thomas Leinenweber, an attorney for the Public Administrator.

As you might guess, questions have arisen about what will become of the money. Not a dispute at this point, mind you, but questions.

The handwritten will, which everyone seems to agree has no legal standing, states: “Since I have no family, I would like any estate I have to be given to the Sisters of Mercy that taught my mom.” It is signed and dated April 10, 1993, but not properly witnessed.

A copy of what appears to be a second will, prepared in 2008 by a lawyer, leaves 80 percent of the estate to the Sisters of Mercy, with the remainder to be split evenly by a nephew and two cousins.

The problem is that under Illinois law you need the original will, and if you don’t have it, it can be difficult to prove the copy is legitimate.

And if there’s no valid will, then all the money legally would go to Flavin’s only living blood heir, his nephew Patrick, the son of his late brother John.

I couldn’t reach Patrick Flavin, but his mother Shirley Collins Flavin, told me she knows “for a fact” the 2008 will is valid because she helped connect her former brother-in-law with the north suburban lawyer who drew it up, Harry Piper.

Piper died before Flavin, but his son Patrick Piper told me he located a copy of the will in the attic of his father’s garage after being contacted by the Public Administrator.

Shirley Flavin said she always believed her brother-in-law had a “nest egg” because he “lived very humbly” and “knew the stock market inside and out.”

Flavin emphasized there is no dispute over the estate.

“As far as I know, everybody’s happy,” she said.

I expect the quiet man would have wanted it to stay that way.