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Man wills $750k to island fund, many other local causes

C. Keith Birkenfeld -
C. Keith Birkenfeld
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C. Keith Birkenfeld left a $16 million estate when he died Sept. 7 at age 66.

C. Keith Birkenfeld made sure his charitable giving, and his name, will live in perpetuity on Bainbridge Island.

Of an estimated $16 million in bequests to various organizations local, state and nationwide, $750,000 is earmarked for the Bainbridge Island Community Endowment, said Bainbridge attorney Nick Nickum, executor of the late Birkenfeld’s estate.

The endowment money is to be used for yet-to-be-determined capital construction bearing Birkenfeld’s name.

Birkenfeld, 66, a self-described “Kitsap County lad” and former Bellevue teacher who spent the last 25 years of his life on Bainbridge Island when he wasn’t traveling the globe, died of heart problems Sept. 7 at Island Health and Rehabilitation Center.

“I talked to Keith a few years ago, when the community endowment got started, and he never gave me a hint as to what he was thinking,” said Steve Davis, endowment director. “The size of his estate is a surprise.”

The four-year-old endowment makes contributions to island nonprofit groups and other community causes.

“It’s a great gift for Bainbridge Island,” Davis said. “It’s very exciting. We’ll probably create a committee of people, with board members and some people from the community, to decide what to do (with the money).”

Birkenfeld’s will also stipulates the following gifts to island organizations:

• $25,000 to the Bainbridge Performing Arts Playhouse, for a capital project to bear Birkenfeld’s name;

• $25,000 to the Bainbridge Island Church of Christ Scientist, and $1,000 to Eagle Harbor Congregational Church;

• $25,000 each to the Bloedel Reserve and the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center, for capital projects to bear Birkenfeld’s name;

• $10,000 to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum for an unspecified capital need;

• $5,000 each to the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American and Filipino American communities “for preservation of their historic contributions.”

Hundreds of thousands of dollars will go to various Kitsap County organizations, while a Seattle public television station will receive $50,000 with the stipulation that on-air credit goes to the “C. Keith Birkenfeld Memorial Trust.”

Birkenfeld also left sizable bequests to foundations in other states, with more than three dozen beneficiaries total. The Seattle Foundation will receive the balance of the estate – an estimated $12 million – to help youth programs, and organizations on the island and in Kitsap County may apply for some of this money, Nickum said.

A lifelong Republican who also left significant sums to GOP organizations and to preservation of the Reagan Ranch in California, Birkenfeld also specified where he did not want his money to go – namely, “liberal-oriented, do-gooder” and “alternative lifestyle” causes.

His will included an admonishment:

“Be reminded, I am not impressed with the current day bureaucratic nature of the nonprofits staff who seem often to be more self-serving and self-promoting than interested in working for their identified cause.

“I am not impressed by grant writers and liberal do-good causes which often seem to feel that funds are owed them. I want my contributions to count for something; to be seed money whenever possible; and to be used as support for lean, mean, efficient recipient organizations getting jobs done!”

Born Oct. 20, 1939, into the sixth generation of an eight-generation Washington family, Birkenfeld spent 20 years in the Bellevue School District, where he taught international relations and U.S. history and later served as an administrator.

A lifelong bachelor with no children, he left education because of poor health and turned his attention to real estate investments.

Birkenfeld would buy a house, rent it out and live in the basement apartment; at his death, he was eulogized for making his fortune through frugality and a shrewd business sense.

He spent the last 25 years of his life in a Bainbridge Island condominium, although he spent his time globetrotting and was seldom here.

During his many world travels, Birkenfeld became friends with celebrities including Sonny Bono, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Ginger Rogers.

Birkenfeld wrote in his will: “I am a Kitsap County lad who started with nothing and I am proud to be leaving something for others.

“Remember, I never had a salary over $21,500 during my lifetime before health forced my retirement in 1981. I hope my example will cause others to save, invest and give.”

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