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Former high school waitress making inheritance work for her

December 26, 1997

ATHENS, Ohio (AP) _ Like most college students, Cara Wood doesn’t live extravagantly. She rents an apartment off campus at Ohio University and drives a used Jeep.

But the living is easy. Small wonder.

Wood was a 17-year-old waitress in high school five years ago when she inherited a $500,000 estate from a customer who had befriended her. She has invested in the stock market and is making enough money to live off the earnings, which also are paying for her college education. She said she has all of the principal she inherited _ and more.

``Life is about having fun and being happy,″ said Wood, now 22. ``I’m happy.″

Wood was working at Dink’s Colonial Restaurant in her hometown of Chagrin Falls, about 15 miles east of Cleveland, in 1992. She was a good employee _ bright, friendly and helpful.

One customer, Bill Cruxton, took such a liking to her that he always sat in her section. A widower with no children, he went to the restaurant daily for his meals and some company.

Cruxton’s intention to be benevolent in his death was no secret at the restaurant. He previously had willed his estate to another waitress but took her out of it for reasons not fully explained. Some say Cruxton didn’t like her boyfriend; others say the two simply lost touch when she left her job.

Then there was Wood, a high school soccer star who worked after school and during the summer. She was competitive, outgoing and assertive. He was opinionated and at times overbearing. Sometimes, the two personalities clashed.

But they became friends. He told her she reminded him of his wife, Gertrude, who had died three years earlier. He said he imagined his grandchildren, if he’d had any, would have been like Wood.

In addition to being his regular waitress, she helped him around the house and ran errands for him.

Yes, she knew about the small fortune that was waiting to be inherited. But she said that didn’t matter to her. He cared for her _ he knew that her father, Charles, died when she was 10. And she was his friend.

Wood became so important to Cruxton that he rewrote his will, making her the main beneficiary. He died of heart failure in November 1992 at the age of 82. He kept a picture of Wood in her soccer uniform on a bedside table in his hospital room.

Cruxton’s will was challenged by several people, including a sister _ his only surviving family member _ and the previous waitress. A settlement was reached in September 1993; Wood got Cruxton’s house, both of his cars, his jewelry, other assorted valuables and all of his money except about $35,000, an amount the others shared. Wood had to pay upwards of $100,000 in legal fees.

Wood’s mother, Glenna Snider, said the inheritance was a ``blessing″ bestowed upon her daughter somewhat by chance. As she sees it, her daughter just happened to be the waitress who Cruxton liked at the time. Cruxton, Ms. Snider said, was a bit fickle.

Wood understands she has much to be thankful for.

``I am lucky,″ she said. ``I’m coming to realize that.″

Ms. Snider urged her daughter to use the inheritance wisely. ``I said don’t ever spend what Bill gave you; just spend what it can make for you.″

Wood turned to the stock market. She said she has done well primarily because the market has been so strong.

But she has business sense, which she is sharpening in college by majoring in marketing and finance. Now a senior, she has a 3.5 grade-point average. She already is a licensed broker and insurance agent, working at a local investment company during school breaks.

Wood still owns Cruxton’s two-bedroom ranch a few miles from Chagrin Falls. She said she wouldn’t feel right selling it, so she rents it out.

Wood believes she has been responsible with her inheritance. She’s not frivolous. She prefers her red 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which she bought last December, to a new car.

``I’ll never buy a new car,″ she said. ``Do you know that’s the worst investment you can make?″

She sees being careful with her money as honoring Cruxton. ``I want to respect his memory. It’s not really my money; it’s his money.″

Wood has no long-range plans other than to continue her career in financial planning. She isn’t sure when she will graduate, and she isn’t hurrying.

She doesn’t go home to Chagrin Falls very often, but when she does, she stops in at Dink’s. Co-owner Dennis Zdolshek said customers still talk about what happened to one of their waitresses five years ago.

``They ask about Cara,″ Zdolshek said. ``Sometimes someone will make a joke and say something like `I’m old. You’d better be nice to me.‴

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