By Tom Dalton
SALEM — A 96-year-old former Salem Hospital nurse, who died two years ago, bequeathed $160,000 to the city — virtually the entire proceeds from the sale of her Salem home.
The generous gift to the Salem Council on Aging has left city officials grateful, and also scratching their heads.
"She's kind of a mystery," said Bill Woolley, assistant director of parks, recreation and community services.
Irene Willey, formerly of 12 Oak St., was not a regular at the Council on Aging.
"She just thought they could use the money," said Judy Quinlivan of Salem, a neighbor and close friend. "She had her own ideas of where her money was going to go. She told me long ago that's where her money was going."
Willey, who was unmarried and had no immediate relatives, retired in 1974 as a night supervisor at Salem Hospital, where she had worked as a registered nurse for four decades. Predeceased by two sisters, she died on Feb. 25, 2009.
News of the bequest arrived at the city this March in the form of a fax from the public charities division of the attorney general's office. It was a copy of the will.
"Upon my death," it stated, "my home located at 12 Oak St., Salem, MA, shall be sold and the net proceeds derived therefrom shall be donated to the Salem Council on Aging, Broad Street, Salem, MA."
A check for $160,532 arrived in July.
"It kind of blew us away," Woolley said.
Since then, officials have tried to find out all they could about Willey, but turned up little. Her scrapbook was turned over to Salem Hospital, but it contained mainly newspaper clippings about weddings, engagements and milestones in the lives of colleagues and friends.
"We have more information about people with whom she worked than we do about the woman herself," Woolley said.
Born in 1912 in Gorham, N.H., Willey graduated from Danvers High in 1929 and from the Salem Hospital School of Nursing in 1935. She lived in Salem most of her life, more than 40 years on Oak Street.
She was active at Wesley United Methodist Church, volunteering at church fairs and bean suppers. As a hobby, she made Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, according to her obituary. Dolls she made and antique ones she collected are on display at Salem Hospital.
"She was a very kind, loving person," said Mary Tremblay of Salem, a former night supervisor and colleague at Salem Hospital.
"She was very frugal. In her lifetime, she never owned a car. She always walked to work."
Neighbors often saw her out in her yard raking or weeding.
"She was a sweetheart," said Jim Quinlivan, who gave her rides to medical appointments. "She was willing to help everybody."
Although plans aren't final, the city expects to use the gift to help furnish the new senior center at Bridge and Boston streets.
"We are certainly going to try to honor her memory," Mayor Kim Driscoll said. "We were just shocked and totally surprised. ... I wish we had known more about her, but it was certainly a generous gift for all of the seniors in Salem."
Willey left smaller bequests to the North Shore Medical Center, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Wesley Church, and The Plummer Home for Boys.