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Heir Lays Claim to Woolworth Riches

October 21, 2000

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. (AP) _ Life in the welfare line hasn’t been the same for single mom Judi Donahue since word got out about her middle name, Woolworth _ as in great-granddaughter of five-and-dime king F.W. Woolworth.

``The other day _ it was amazing. I went to pick up my food stamps. We’re usually, like, real quiet and everybody’s, ‘Just give me my food stamps and I’m going to go.’ They all jumped up and started talking about Woolworth’s,″ she says.

Donahue, according to records she keeps carefully bundled in a green file folder, is the daughter of a lounge singer called Judith Johns and Woolworth Donahue, F.W.’s grandson.

Born in 1961, a few years before her parents split, Donahue can only vaguely remember it all _ the fabulous toys, the swimming pool, the lavish grounds.

``I don’t have that memory of being rich,″ she says. ``The most I remember was the servants, the way they’d act. It was funny because here I was this little kid and they were terrified they would get in trouble if they treated me wrong.″

Even after the divorce _ Johns was Donahue’s second wife; he would later take a third _ the money kept flowing.

``For a few years we lived really well, but then all of a sudden we were living on this huge mansion on this huge estate with no money. We didn’t have food,″ Donahue says.

For the past 10 years, Donahue lived quietly with her daughter in Crescent City, a small town at the tip of Northern California.

Then a friend talked her into telling her story to the tabloids. In July, the Globe printed it.

Since then, Donahue’s been interviewed, her friends helped her get a computer she is using to write her life story, and she has found an attorney to help her stake claim to a piece of the Woolworth fortune.

It’s hard to say what Donahue could lay claim to. The Woolworth company, which went public decades ago, closed its five-and-dime stores in the United States but continues to operate Foot Locker and other athletic gear stores under the new name of Venator Group.

A Venator spokesman said officials aren’t aware of Donahue or her claim to be F.W. Woolworth’s great-granddaughter.

After Woolworth Donahue died in 1972, Donahue thinks she was supposed to get a $500,000 trust fund, but never saw the money. She has long been estranged from her mother, who according to Donahue claims she doesn’t know where the money went.

Donahue says she was sent to live with a maternal grandmother in Oregon. At age 15, Donahue came home one day to find that the grandmother had taken her half-siblings and moved out, deciding she’d rather give up the house than cope with a teen-ager.

``I don’t have a sob story,″ she says of her abandonment and subsequent plunge into a life of no school, too much alcohol and bad choices. ``I was a 15-year-old with a house in the ’70s, so there we go.″

Karen Plunkett-Powell, author of ``Remembering Woolworths,″ published by St. Martin’s Press in 1999, thinks Donahue very likely is F.W.’s great-granddaughter.

``The memories she has are very specific,″ she said. ``She knows things that no one knows, like where they lived and what it was like, pieces of furniture or types of decor.″

By tradition, the role of impoverished heiress is a wistful one, especially from a clan that produced the famously woebegone ``poor little rich girl,″ F.W. granddaughter Barbara Hutton.

Donahue doesn’t fit that mold.

``I guess the story is completely bizarre _ to me, I live it,″ she says. ``I’m not ashamed of my life. I live a good life. My daughter is awfully happy and well-adjusted. I’ve never worried about the Woolworths’ money. What I have worried about is me and my daughter being ourselves. We are who we are.″

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