Over the years, Register readers have crossed paths multiple times with Bert Wooning, who for decades owned a self-named landscaping business in Napa.
In 1984, the Register wrote that American Express was giving him the runaround after $2,500 in travelers checks were stolen from him on a vacation in South America.
“I’m a natural man. I’ve wanted to see the Amazon all my life,” he said. The theft of the travelers checks nearly ruined his trip and forced him to eat garbage to survive, he said.
In 2000, the paper ran a happier feature. Wooning was now taking short breaks from landscaping to be a “gentleman host” on cruise ships. His job was to dance the night away with unaccompanied women.
“You always made them feel good and made them believe they danced like Ginger Rogers,” he would later write in his draft autobiography.
In 2002, Wooning appeared in the Register’s Napa Living Section. He was leaving for Uganda to work for four months at a Carmelite mission. The headline described Wooning as a “man of faith.”
Spring forward to now. In December, his financial adviser, with his permission, called the Register to say that Wooning, a humble landscaper, had just become a millionaire.
Frank Dolan, an adviser with Merrill Lynch, said that Wooning, while living a bare-bones lifestyle, had been stashing away small amounts of money for 25 years, trusting him to make it grow. And grow it had, topping $1 million during the Christmas holidays.
Upon his death, Wooning wants to support the Missionaries of Charity, an order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta fame, the adviser said. “To me, he really is a saint of earth,” he said of Wooning.
Curious about how Wooning had finessed his life to become a philanthropist, a reporter arranged to meet him at his west Napa home on a sunny January day.
Wooning, now 77, was balder than before, but had the same big grin and goatee, and his English remained inflected with the speech of his native Holland. He welcomed the reporter to his little Garden of Eden.
He’d bought his subdivision house on West Pueblo Avenue for $38,000 in 1972, he said. The house sat on an exceptional lot — a narrow acre-and-a-quarter parcel that terraces down to Redwood Creek.
He had spent 20 years removing the poison oak on the lower level, he said. Today’s lush landscape — the redwoods, the palms, the greenery of all description — came mostly from seedlings, he said. “The oaks were planted by squirrels.”
Since his retirement as a commercial landscaper a decade ago, Wooning said he spends much of each day tending to his plants and chickens and fabricating improvements.
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When he was in his 60s, he dug a cave into an earthen bank. On hot summer nights, he crawls in with a sleeping bag and sleeps, he said.
Everything about his life is about simplicity, Wooning said. His house has lovely hardwood floors, but little furniture. He hangs washed sheets in the otherwise empty living room to dry.
He eats two meals a day. His dinners are a vegetable combo that includes steamed potatoes and carrots — all organic — that he prepares in big batches, then stores in jars, eating one a day. For protein, he includes “a little bit of salmon” while drinking a single glass of cheap organic red wine from Trader Joe’s.
For dessert, two bits of dark chocolate.
Wooning, who is divorced with a grown son and two adopted daughters, said he has a lady friend. They trade dinners weekly and sometimes go to brunch. He dances weekly at a Moose lodge in Sonoma.
As a younger man, Wooning said he managed to combine his landscaping business with bouts of wanderlust and a desire to do good. He traveled in the off season when his employees could handle his maintenance accounts.
Wooning said he visited Mother Teresa three times and helped feed and bathe the sick. He displays a framed note from her, thanking him for a financial gift.
Later in life, he volunteered to do landscaping at the Carmelite Monestery in Oakville, then made a half dozen trips to work on Carmelite project to benefit people in rural Uganda, he said.
He grew up in religious family. Some of his Dutch cousins became priests. Even as a child, he imagined himself helping others, he said.
Wooning said he emigrated to the U.S. at age 22 for greater opportunity. He landed in Napa because the Van Windens of local gardening fame are relatives, he said.
He said he couldn’t imagine himself becoming a millionaire 55 years after coming to America. His first job — washing dishes in Oregon — paid $1.25 an hour.
In his best year, Wooning said he earned $70,000. He now receives $3,000 monthly from Social Security and an annuity. “I probably spend half of it. The rest I use for savings,” he said.
His $1 million nest egg won’t go exclusively to Mother Teresa’s charity, Wooning said. Some will go to another Catholic charity, with more going to his children.
Frugality is the key to savings, Wooning said. When he traveled the world, he went to less-developed countries, typically spending $3,000 for a three-month trip, including air fare. He stayed where the locals stayed and ate what the locals ate.
Now he’s a homebody. “I love to be outdoors. During the day, the happiest place for me is to be outdoors to work with the plants,” Wooning said. “For me, it’s all mental and physical therapy.”
“I have my paradise on earth,” he said.
You can reach City Editor Kevin Courtney at email@example.com or at 707-256-2217.