Wanderlust and generosity

After 35 years living in campgrounds, this resourceful couple settled in Chico—and then left a fortune to the university

About this story:
Author Joe Wills is the director of public affairs and publications at Chico State University. The article is reprinted with permission from the fall 2011 issue of the university magazine, Chico Statements.

Essentially, Ed and Marion Floyd left on a fishing trip in June 1957 and didn’t come home for 35 years. From 1957 to 1992, they camped in one scenic spot after another. Only when Ed and Marion were 81 and 73 years old, respectively, and no longer able to lift their canoe to the top of their Chevy truck, did they settle down in their adopted home of Chico.

While they were still on the road, the Floyds cleaned with washcloths till they were threadbare and found a hundred uses for old fishing line. They were so resourceful and spent so little money camping that most of the small income they had—rent from an apartment building Ed had built in the Bay Area—went either to people they met while camping or into savings bonds. By the time they came off the road, Ed and Marion had become quite wealthy.

The Floyds did not attend Chico State but lived in Chico in their later years and were grateful for help they received from nurses, caregivers and others affiliated with the university. The depth of that gratitude became clear when the Floyds’ estate was settled last year following Marion’s passing in 2009, giving the university $4 million to be split among three areas: the School of Nursing; scholarships for re-entry students; and Passages, the resource center for older adults and caregivers that is operated by the University Research Foundation.

It is the largest philanthropic gift in Chico State history, and it came from a couple whose story is as unbelievable as it is life-affirming.

On the road again

Until the final chapter of their remarkable life together, no one knew the Floyds had substantial sums of money, much less millions. And only a few people were aware they had been living a tantalizing, if eccentric, version of the American Dream: quit your job and take off down the road, camp and fish in one place after another, meet people, see the world and practically live off the land.

They weren’t crazy millionaires living like hobos, or Beverly hillbillies who struck oil and became rich overnight. The Floyds lived a real rags-to-riches story: When you reuse paper napkins, over the course of 35 years you can slowly, inexorably build wealth.

Photos from Marion’s scrapbook: The couple in Phoenix, 1958.

But there was nothing ordinary about what they did. How many couples, disillusioned with suburban sprawl or consumer culture, dreamed of chucking it all and leaving the humdrum 1950s behind? How many could really pull it off?

The Floyds were perhaps the perfect ones to do it. Ed knew how to fix things. He was a ship fitter in the U.S. Navy, laying out the bulkheads, braces and other parts of warships hurriedly being built during the war. He transferred his skills into a window installation business, and learned enough about construction to help build several buildings, including the Floyds’ Oakland home in 1947.

Marion knew how to live simply. She’d moved around a lot as a child, including several years in Alaska, making do with few amenities. She was smart and trained to be a nurse before the war.

Most of all, though, Ed and Marion both loved the wilderness. They shared a reverential joy that comes from mountain passes, quiet lakes and a wicker creel full of the day’s catch.

By fate or their own choosing, the Floyds did not have children. Friends they made on their travels, wildlife they encountered while camping, and their beloved pets (from their dog Spot during the ’50s to their parakeet Chico in the ’90s) were treasured companions. They kept up with far-flung family and friends through correspondence sent and received at post offices scattered throughout the country. Marion gathered much of this in more than a dozen huge scrapbooks also filled with photos, postcards, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and other mementos.

It must have been hard for the Floyds to explain their unconventional lifestyle to loved ones. In a 1962 postcard from Smith River, Marion writes to her mother-in-law back in Oakland: “Honest! We have good intentions when I wrote of staying longer in places but somehow just don’t, due to either weather, no fishing, no rocks to look for or something. We will leave here Thursday for the Klamath River, will write soon as we get an address there.”

To the young people they met along the way, however, they were undoubtedly inspirational. When the Floyds’ 35-year odyssey began, there were no hippies, few backpackers, and little thought given to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Yet Marion and Ed canned what fish they couldn’t eat, found free campsites on public land, and coaxed hundreds of thousands of miles out of old vehicles (six trailers, two trucks, and one 1967 Rambler, to be exact).

They lived the way they did—which younger generations would embrace in time—because frugality came to them naturally, as outdoor types and children of the Great Depression. Coupled with their deep desires to travel and be in nature, it added up to a happy, nomadic existence that ended only when they lacked the physical endurance to pull the canoe off the Chevy.

Camping with their 17 1/2 ft. Alumacraft canoe, 1968.

Why Chico?

Proximity to great hiking and fishing was probably responsible for Ed and Marion’s choice of Chico as their retirement spot. They had bought an 800-square-foot house on Third Avenue in 1972 and made friends in town on periodic visits over the years as they prepared for the unpleasant prospect of settling down. When the dreaded day came in 1992, the ivy Marion had planted had festooned the front and back fencing to give the place a homey feel—“my little cave,” she called it.

As they grew older—and, sadly, as Ed was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease—they relied on those Chico friends and local resources that help with aging, illness and care-giving. Although neither of them had graduated from college, they had great respect for education and appreciated the benefits of living near the university.

Without children as heirs, they took time deciding where to leave their estate, and that took on urgency as they discovered their investments were worth several million dollars. Ultimately, they wanted to show their gratitude for the nursing and elder care they had received, and they wanted to encourage older adults to continue their education.

“What a wonderful thing that they thought about us,” said Joe Cobery, director of Passages. “Their gift is really making a difference, particularly in these hard times. By helping us provide services to support older adults, it helps us support the entire community. We can’t thank the Floyds enough.”

Added Carol Huston, Chico State School of Nursing director: “The generosity of Ed and Marion Floyd’s gift to the School of Nursing is unparalleled. It allows us to update critical resources, promote high-quality student learning, and provide more opportunities for students to become professional registered nurses, thus improving the quality of health care throughout the North State and even nationally.”

Marion and Ed Floyd after their move to Chico.

Re-entry scholarships are more important than ever because of the economy, noted Chico State scholarship coordinator Daria Booth: “These students are often juggling a job and family, pulled in many directions, and a scholarship is not only financial help, but also an acknowledgement they made a good decision. The Floyds’ gift makes a college education possible for many people.”

Marion and Ed would have enjoyed hearing about good uses for their money, particularly because they had so little interest in spending money themselves. Even in their final years, the Floyds amazed guests with their commitment to simple living. Gary Salberg, director of major gifts and planned giving at Chico State, recalls Marion tearing paper towels in half as she served milk and cookies at their home.

“She said half a sheet would do just fine as a napkin, not to mention that paper towels were expensive,” said Salberg. The snack-time savings didn’t end there: Salberg said the milk on the table was made with powdered milk—less expensive, of course.

Ed died in 2003, Marion in 2009. One of the things they left behind along with the scrapbooks was a dog-eared, Scotch tape-reinforced spiral notebook, in which Marion logged purchases, weather reports, friends’ birthdates, bank balances, and other shorthand accounts of their life together. (Typical entry: “Nice day. Washed clothes, only went out in eve. 3 nice bass.”)

The very last listing in the book, in Marion’s flagging longhand script, reports the purchase of a six-pack of Cashmere Bouquet soap. The retail price is lost to history, but the important part—the part that defines who the Floyds were—isn’t. From some rural-delivery outpost, no doubt, Marion mailed in and received a $1 rebate from Colgate.