Humble elementary school teacher leaves behind $5 million surprise

Humble elementary school teacher leaves behind $5 million surprise

May 31st, 2014 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Lillian Colby

Lillian Colby

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Lillian Colby, a teacher at Thrasher Elementary School, left behind a surprise after she died in 2010: a $5 million foundation.

Colby, who was born in 1920 to a farming family in Eagleville, Tenn., lived with her husband Fred Colby on Signal Mountain after graduating from the University of Tennessee. They had no children. A widow for decades after her husband preceded her in death, she was known for her thriftiness.

Though she was involved with a handful of community clubs, Colby led the quiet life of a typical elementary school teacher. Only, typical elementary school teachers don't leave behind more than $5 million to to fund groups like Metropolitan Ministries or the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

"It's a large foundation," said Dana Perry, a board member for the foundation. "Our only problem is hopefully going to be wanting to give away too much."

In 2013, the group made donations ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, and is looking for more grant applications in coming months in preparation for another round of gifts this Fall. It targets projects or programs that help "the poor, downtrodden, homeless, hungry and battered, along with overall cultural and artistic advancement," according to a news release.

"We are committed to meeting the growing need in our community, and we simply could not do it without philanthropic support from institutions like the Lillian Colby Foundation," said Maeghan Jones, president of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.

Nonprofit group Metropolitan Ministries said the Colby Foundation, which was founded in 2012, has already become a leader in giving back to Chattanooga's less fortunate.

"The economy is still causing severe hardships on families in our region, and we are very thankful that the Lillian Colby Foundation was able to help fund our Homelessness Prevention Initiative," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries.

Though it's unclear exactly how Colby was able to leave behind a multi-million dollar on a teachers' salary, the money is certainly in good hands. The foundation's board is staffed by well-known names from Chattanooga's philanthropic universe, including Jim Vaughn, city president for SunTrust Bank, Gary Chazen, a former consultant to Metal Systems Inc., who now serves as chairman of The Hunter Museum of Art and president of Friends of the Zoo; Dana Perry, the managing partner at the Chambliss law firm, and Ben Probasco, a partner in the development firm of Kinsey, Probasco and Hays.

"Throughout her life, my Aunt Lillian and her husband, Fred Colby, worked steadily with young people and their families, helping them cultivate a myriad of life skills to excel as individuals to grow as community members and leaders," said board member Catherine Colby, niece to the late Lillian Colby. "She created the foundation so that community organizations with relevant, sustainable initiatives can make strides toward their goals of assisting individuals and developing our community."

Contact Ellis Smith at or at 757-6315.