From the paint chipping on the lawn ornaments in their front yard, you wouldn’t know the Ebes were wealthy.
And that’s exactly the way they wanted it.
But after the elderly siblings gave $10 million to this little village in southeast Wisconsin, their secret got out.
The local newspaper wanted to know who made the donation to build a new municipal complex for this village of about 25,000 people about 30 miles south of Milwaukee. Was it a developer? A politically influenced donation?
No, the newspaper learned after filing a request under the state public records law. It wasn’t someone trying to bolster their own business interests.
Instead, it was Emil Ebe, 86, and Lorraine Ebe, 84. The siblings, the paper found out, were apparently millionaires who wanted to give back to their town ? quietly.
Even now, village administrator Mike Andreasen won’t say the Ebes’ names.
These people, he said recently at his office on a busy commercial strip in town, just came in one day and said they wanted to make a donation. He had never met them before.
“It is the singularly most gracious act I’ve witnessed in my life,” Andreasen said. “What they have done for the village of Mount Pleasant will be meaningful to people who are not born yet.”
Andreasen asked the Racine Journal Times not to publish the siblings’ names after the paper asked to see the donation’s contract.
The donation was announced at the village’s board meeting on March 10 and raised eyebrows right away, said Steve Lovejoy, the paper’s editor. The amount of money and the fact that it was anonymous made people wonder whether someone was attempting to profit from the deal, he said.
“We had no idea what we would find,” Lovejoy said. “In this case, it looked like it turned out to be benign, but going into it we did not know that.”
The Ebes sent the paper a letter asking it not to reveal their names.
“We have made this donation to the Village of Mt. Pleasant with no expectation of anything in return from the Village of Mt. Pleasant. We are not now nor have we in the past been developers in the Village of Mt. Pleasant,” they wrote in the letter, part of which was published in the paper. “It was our intent to provide the Village of Mt. Pleasant with a new Village Hall and other Village buildings.”
The paper grappled with protecting the pair’s anonymity while still telling the public the donation appeared to be clean, Lovejoy said.
“At that point, we were kind of stuck in a situation of deciding whether we could write a story that said, ‘Trust us. We know who these people are and they’re not developers,’ and not identify them,’ he said.
But maybe the public wouldn’t believe the paper, he said. And the paper didn’t want to keep secrets.
So the article was published, the pair named. Lovejoy said he didn’t get many phone calls complaining about it.
It’s still not clear where the Ebes got their money. Lovejoy called them an “enigma” and said they were very private. According to property records, they have lived in the village since 1949. The paper said in its story the two have no direct descendants or close living family members that they want to give their money to, according to the contract. But as part of the contract, the village agreed to pay funeral expenses for the pair of no more than $20,000 each.
The Ebes pulled up to their single-story brick and stone house blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan recently and declined to be interviewed for this story.
Lorraine, who has a thick head of curly gray hair and wore green sweat pants and a blue jacket, got out of the car first. She walked over to the detached garage and opened it manually, while an elderly man, perhaps Emil, backed a white sedan in.
Lorraine answered to her name, but when asked about the donation, she deferred to the man.
When the tall, thin man who was hard of hearing was asked the same question, he became angry.
“I have no comment. Nothing,” he said. “I’m not talking and that’s it.”
When asked if he was Emil, he refused to say.