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A $315 investment in Safeco pays off

Lyndall Scott Russell was a military wife, eager to stash away a nest egg for her family when she sought a friend's financial advice in 1950.

He suggested investing in a Seattle company that insured the cargo shipped to Alaska from the mainland.

Russell's family was stationed in Seattle at the time, and it seemed like a sound choice. So she spent $315 on 15 shares, and stowed the stock in "a nice good shoe box."

"As we moved from station to station, I'd take the shoe box and put it on the shelf in the closet," the Fort Worth woman remembers. "All the years, I have never sold a share."

Now, Russell is nearing her 100th birthday. And that $315 investment has made her a giddy, wealthy woman.

Shares of the company now known as Safeco -- which sells insurance to individuals, small and midsized businesses -- have split nine times since 1950 and paid a steady stream of dividends over the years.

The dividends and splits multiplied Russell's original 15 shares to many thousands of shares. Russell won't reveal exactly how many, but suffice it to say the amount is enough to make any investor shout: "Yippee! I'm rich! I'm rich!"

In fact, Russell's investment has been so successful that Safeco executives are planning a tribute to her at shareholders' annual meeting in May. They flew a representative to Fort Worth this month to film her at the office of her financial adviser, Barbara Rudduck.

The attention tickled Russell, a Sherman, Texas, native who lives alone, manages her own affairs, and drove a car until recently. She's now busy planning her 100th birthday bash, which will be in August at a country club because her house isn't big enough to hold scores of guests.

Russell said brokers have urged her for years to sell some of her Safeco holdings. But she had faith in the company, even when its earnings tumbled in the late 1990s.

Although the Safeco shares represent the largest slice of Russell's portfolio, she said she has enjoyed investing in a variety of businesses.

She insists that the stock market hinges largely on luck and likens it to another favorite pastime, horse races.

"I don't check the market every day. It's up. It's down," Russell said. "Buy it, hold it and forget it. For me, it's been very successful."

Russell, who has a daughter and two grandchildren, said she intends to pass the Safeco investment intact to her heirs.

She took advantage of the meeting with the Safeco representative to deliver a message to the company's board and president about her stock: "I'm living, starting my second 100 years. I'm hanging in for it to split again."