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2.09.06 Scholarships for Somerville women funded by $1.9M bequest

by Mark Sullivan

When Doris York was growing up in Somerville in the 1920s, her father didn't think girls should go to college.

That didn't stop her. She worked her way to a law degree from the old Portia Law School on Beacon Hill, and went on to a career as a bank executive with the United States Trust Co. in Boston.

Along the way, she invested in tax-free municipal bonds lots of them. When she died in 2004 at 92, York, who never married, left an estate worth roughly $4 million.

Nearly half -- $1.94 million -- she has left to Tufts to establish a scholarship fund for young women graduates of Somerville High. A similar bequest will benefit Somerville High women at Boston University.

Tufts learned of the bequest after her death in October 2004. "It was such a wonderful surprise," said Lauren Bellon, Tufts' associate director of gift planning. "We'd never had any communication with her. We wish she'd told us earlier so we could have thanked her properly.

Her executor, Somerville attorney James Nelligan, said the 1929 Somerville High alumna meant her will as "payback" to the father who wouldn't help his daughter pay for college.

Now, some Somerville women will have the chance to finance their educations with the help of her generosity. The first awards are expected to be made to students entering Tufts this fall.

"She was a stern old gal who wanted to make sure her money went where she wanted it to go, and I respected her for that," said Anthony Fedele, former Somerville High headmaster and founder of the Somerville High School Scholarship Foundation.

It is unclear why she chose to leave her money to Tufts and BU, schools with which she had no known affiliation, but their accessibility to Somerville is believed to have been a factor .

"I'd say it was because they were local," said a cousin, Elena Ivaska, J30, of Belmont, a 97-year-old retired Somerville High French teacher.

Her cousin created the scholarships "because she had to get her education on her own, and it was a struggle," Ivaska said. "She thought the best thing she could do with her money was to help others who might not have been able to afford college otherwise."

At Tufts, the Doris W. York Endowed Scholarship Fund will provide full-tuition scholarships to women who graduated from Somerville High in the top fifth of their class while residing in the city throughout their high-school career.

The four-year scholarships will be awarded by the Financial Aid Office based on need. At least two are expected to be generated promptly for students entering Tufts in the Class of 2010.

"These scholarships underscore our close relationship with the Somerville community," said Patricia Reilly, Tufts' financial aid director. "Hopefully, they'll encourage more students from Somerville to consider Tufts."

York had been a voracious reader, and her lifelong family home on Prichard Avenue near Ball Square was filled with books, though in her last years, legally blind, she could no longer read them.

"It would be safe to say the integrity of the floorboards in her house were questionable because of the weight of the books," said geriatric care manager Audrey Zabin, whose agency provided home care for York.

Attorney Nelligan, York's conservator in her final years, described a surprising discovery made when going through papers in her home.

"I found this stack, about five feet high, of statements from Paine Webber," he said. "It turned out she had a portfolio worth about $3 million!

"She worked for a bank. All she did was buy municipal bonds, and they kept on growing."

She was born Doris Yirovec, the only child of Czechoslovakian immigrant Benjamin Yirovec and his wife, Wilhemina, all three of whom later anglicized their last name to York, recalled Elena Ivaska, whose family lived next door on Prichard Avenue.

Her cousin was a studious, a talented mathematician, and an American history buff who took great interest in politics and current affairs, said Ivaska, adding: "I think she would have liked to be a teacher."

The Czechoslovakian immigrant's daughter had a State Street bearing, according to former headmaster Fedele, whose scholarship foundation meetings Miss York often attended. "Picture the old Yankee gal - that's how she struck me," he said.

York loved opera, had traveled the world, and was outspoken in her opinions, her elder-care provider said. "She was a free-thinker, even in her later years, and spoke her mind," said Zabin. "She'd speak up with tremendous candor. She was quite a lady."