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- September 21, 1998
- Vol. 50
- No. 10
From the Heart
Giving More Than Their Share and Finding Joy in the Gift, Nine Ordinary Americans Make Themselves Unassuming Symbols of the Spirit of Charity
A bootblack saves his tips for sick kids
Children's Hospital Of Pittsburgh
(over 17 years)
Dr. Samuel A. Kocoshis, director of pediatric gastroenterology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, rests a foot on a gray metal box and watches Albert Lexie work his magic, spreading black polish then furiously buffing his client's loafer. "Albert's work is as important as any doctor's," says Kocoshis. "Albert is a true humanitarian."
Kocoshis doesn't exaggerate. Over the past 17 years, Lexie, who is developmental disabled, has donated more than $40,000 to the Children's Hospital's Free Care Fund, which helps pay medical costs for the needy—all from tips on his $2 shines. He got the idea just before Christmas 1979, when he saw a telethon for the hospital on TV. "I said, 'I can do that; I can give money for the children,' " recalls Lexie, 56, who earns about $9,000 a year. Working in and around his hometown of Monessen, Pa., he saved $730 by the next telethon. "Then a friend asked me, do I want to see where I give my money," Lexie recalls. "He took me to Children's Hospital and someone says, 'Do you want to shine shoes here?' 'Oh, yes,' I said."
Lexie has been servicing hospital staffers on Tuesdays and Thursdays ever since, working the halls like a doctor on rounds; it's not uncommon to find distinguished physicians sitting at meetings unshod while Lexie spiffs leather in the next room. Thirteen years ago he started Albert's Shoe Shine Club, where participants get a free shine for every five he punches on their membership cards. And he gives a prize—say, free lunch at the cafeteria—to the month's top tipper. "I thought I'd never win, so I started bringing in shoes twice a week," says April's champ, Dr. Thomas Foley Jr., 61, a pediatric endocrinologist. "I also bring in my wife's shoes."
Like another of Pittsburgh's big givers—Andrew Carnegie—Lexie grew up poor. Abandoned by their father, he and his three siblings were raised by their mother, Nellie, on public assistance in a Monessen housing project. "Our mother did everything for him," says Lexie's sister Kathy Cooper, 49. "Albert grew up in a time when if someone in your family was slow, you kept him almost like in a corner." Still, Lexie made it to high school in special classes, and though he never graduated, he learned to read and write. He found his calling when he saw some boys making shoe-shine boxes in shop class. "I said, 'That's what I want to do,' " says Lexie, who made his own box, then went out door-to-door, building a clientele. More independent since Nellie's death in 1978, he rents a one-room apartment, cooks and cleans for himself and likes playing gospel tapes. He cherishes his monthly visits with the hospital's patients. "Last year the kids made a big birthday card for Albert," says staffer Mary Diesing. "He was so happy, he started crying."
"They're my kids," Lexie says, beaming. "They like me."
An ex-slave's son takes affirmative action
CRISPUS ATTUCKS WRIGHT
USC Law School
Crispus Attucks Wright was deeply moved when he returned last summer to the University of Southern California Law School. Sixty years ago his was the only black face in the only black face in the law school. But his strongest impression last year, he says, "was that I saw African-Americans there. I woke up the next morning and knew where my donation would go."
Wright, 84, a retired Beverly Hills lawyer, has given $2 million to his alma mater, endowing scholarships not only for minority students but for students who pledge to use their degrees to serve minority communities. In a small way he hopes to soften the impact of California's abolition of affirmative action in public college admissions. "USC has done an excellent job of recruiting qualified minority students," he says. "I wanted to encourage that."
Wright is the son of a former slave, Warner Wright Sr., who was born on a Louisiana plantation and was freed when he was 8; he put himself through a college founded for ex-slaves and built a career as a high school principal in Alexandria, La. Warner died when Crispus was only 6, but Wright followed his father's example, sometimes working three jobs at once to pay his way through USC's law school.
"Crispus is a dynamic man. He has a sparkle and a smile that's just amazing," says USC law student Stephen Perry, 23, who gets $23,000 a year from the Wright Scholarship Endowment. "I can't fathom the amount of money he has given away." Says Wright: "It's the joy of my life to be able to give."
A teacher enriches his beloved alma matter
University of Miami
A drama instructor at Miami Beach Senior High School for 32 years, Jay Jensen has raised frugality to an art form. He clips coupons from the Sunday paper, prefers Denny's to haute cuisine, takes public transportation and shares a 950-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment with his 93-year-old mother, Billie. "I don't know what splurging means," says Jensen, 67. "I'm not a fussy eater, and you can wear only so much clothing."
All of which is fortunate for the University of Miami, where Jensen earned a bachelor's degree in 1954. This April, Jensen gave $500,000 to the university's School of Education to endow scholarships, raising the sum of his gifts to his alma mater to nearly $3 million—not bad for a retired teacher who had never made more than $46,000 a year. How did he amass his fortune? "I still don't understand it myself," he says with a laugh, explaining that in 1960 he got 10 shares of AT&T from his mother and just kept buying blue-chip stocks. Now he has close to $5 million socked away.
A self-described conservative investor, Jensen longed to be in show business when he was growing up in Newark, N.J., the son of a jewelry designer. The closest he got to stardom, though, was when he and a St. Petersburg Junior College pal, future star Carroll Baker, teamed up as dancing partners at USO revues in the early '50s. "He was so outgoing, I always thought he would be successful," says Baker.
As it turned out, Jensen found his success first in the classroom, where he taught and inspired Andy Garcia—for which, the actor has said, he "will always be thankful"—and later as a philanthropist. "We come into this world with nothing," says Jensen, "and I don't care who you are—a Rockefeller, a Vanderbilt—we're all going to go out with nothing. This way I'm leaving my mark, and generations to come will benefit."
'God's Helper' delivers his bounty
They were hardly standard mailing addresses. "The Man Who Gives Away Money," read one envelope. Another was sent to "God's Helper." And yet, over the years, each letter found its way to the Richmond, Va., home of Thomas Cannon.
Cannon, 73, doesn't honor pleas for cash. Rather, he finds unsuspecting strangers and surprises them with checks of up to $1,000. Since 1972 the retired postal worker, whose salary never climbed above $32,000 a year, has doled out about $102,000.
His generosity arises in part from his humble origins. After his father, a Richmond transit worker, died when Cannon was 3, his mother moved the family to his grandmother's wooden shack in rural Virginia. Following time in the Navy, he returned to Richmond, where he married Princetta Cooper, now 71. Unhappy sorting mail at the post office, he fed his spiritual hunger by reading Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr. and came to feel that he had a mission to improve the world. "I might have been chosen because I was the sort of person who could withstand ridicule," he says. The recipients of Cannon's goodwill include a wheelchair marathoner who lost his legs in Vietnam, eight Chesapeake, Va., kids who pulled a horse out of a marsh and a group building a Hindu temple. He once gave a blind street beggar $1,000 accompanied by a brief note: "Please buy your dog a steak."
Remarkably, he was giving so generously while living in a slum area. To make matters worse, Princetta, who is blind, suffered two strokes that have left her bedridden since 1990. Cannon's good deeds were rewarded, though, in 1995, when real estate developer Gary Fenchuk raised $45,000 from donors to buy Cannon a new home, then began providing a monthly stipend to augment his pension. Of course, Cannon has often put the money to other purposes. Once, after accepting a Christmas check for $2,300, he handed out that amount in $50 bills to strangers on a bus. "When it comes time to depart," he says, "I'll have the satisfaction of having tried to make a more peaceful world."
A woman's gift is music to Baltimore's ears
Peabody Conservatory of Music
By 1993 retired Baltimore social worker Jean Harnish had lost her life savings—and gone $20,000 in debt—supporting a ne'er-do-well former client in can't-miss business ventures. "I thought with enough help he could get his life going," says Harnish. "But he was a con artist, and I was gullible."
Lesser mortals might have lost faith. Not the plucky Harnish, 83. Since recovering from the financial debacle, which left her living for a brief time in a homeless shelter, Harnish has pledged $15,000 a year for three years—half the $30,000 she receives annually from Social Security and her pension—to Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music. "I wouldn't have given the money if there had not been this big fiasco in my life," says Harnish, who regularly attends concerts at the Conservatory, just three blocks from her $310-a-month efficiency apartment. To pay off the $20,000 in debts to friends, Harnish sold her car, gave up nights at the opera and stopped traveling. "I grew up in the Depression," she says. "I know how to live simply." A native of Palmyra, Pa., Harnish and her two siblings were raised by their father, a school principal, and their mother, who directed a church choir. After earning a degree from Bryn Mawr in 1947, Harnish moved to Baltimore, where she counseled troubled families for about 45 years before retiring five years ago. "She is known for giving wise advice," says Ellen Barnum, 23, a Peabody grad student and friend. "She is so full of life and eager to share the things she loves." Among which, music is paramount.
"People say I should travel or do this or that," says Harnish. "But I'm doing what I want. I want the music to go on after I'm gone."
How to make kids smile? Pay for their braces
University of Missouri-Kansas City dental school
Growing up in Chicago during the Depression, Virginia Brown coveted one thing above all else: her older sister Marjorie's braces. Alas, her parents couldn't afford to fix both girls' teeth. When a grade school classmate called Virginia snaggletooth, she was crushed. "I don't think I smiled from that moment on," recalls Brown, now 72.
Not, at least, until she turned 16 and finally got her longed-for braces. Determined to spare others the same ordeal, Brown has donated $130,000 to the University of Missouri-Kansas City's dental school to pay for braces for 48 needy children. The Kansas City resident has also started a program with local orthodontists to subsidize treatment for 30 kids a year. "When you need braces," she says, "you need them now, not when you can afford them."
This isn't the first time Brown has given money away. In the mid-'80s, she and her second husband, oilman Maurice L. Brown, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to UMKC and affiliated hospitals to help patients with facial disfigurements. And in 1992, three years after her husband's death from sinus cancer, Brown donated a dental wing to a clinic at the University of Kansas. It was then that she hit on the idea of braces, which cost about $2,750 per child.
"Almost nobody gives money for orthodontia," says Brown, a grandmother of six. "To feel good about yourself is so important. There are so many other things that knock you down in life."
A Delaware family gives till it hurts
SAM AND JUDY ARTHUR
Six chosen charities
At times, growing up in Wilmington, Del., Josh Arthur didn't completely understand his parents' kindnesses to strangers. He and his 16-year-old sister Emily had to browse through the discount racks at Marshall's while friends shopped at Macy's. Then, after graduating as Concord High School's 1997 valedictorian and wrestling captain, he had to give up his dream of studying at Stanford and attend the University of North Carolina, which offered a $10,000 scholarship and lower tuition. Yet Josh, 19, has come to revere his parents. "I was disappointed," he says. "But giving away the money instead of paying for my education was the right decision."
Sam and Judy Arthur donate 40 percent of their income, or $40,000 a year, to six charities, including their Brandywine Valley Baptist Church and Food for the Hungry. On Judgment Day, explains Sam, 48, "I could say that I had a really nice automobile or beach house, or I could say I tried to make a difference in people's lives." Choosing the latter, Sam, a DuPont chemist, and Judy, 50, a paid literacy advocate, drive a 1984 VW Rabbit and a 1989 VW Fox and live in a modest three-bedroom house. But having splurged recently on a CD player and a VCR, says Sam, "we're part of the 20th century now."
Raised on a farm in North Manchester, Ind., Sam was already giving away 10 percent of his $1 weekly allowance when he was 8. "From an early age I wanted to do what I thought was pleasing to God," he says. His one regret is that he hasn't found a way to donate a full half of his income. "I didn't realize children would be so expensive," he says wryly.
Still, he hopes he has given Josh and Emily more than just a roof over their heads. "I've always thought that if they were concerned with the welfare of others, they would be happy," he says. Josh understands. "Their giving has really blessed them," he says. "If I had the money today, I would probably do the same thing."
In a bleak place a kind presence
The hungry and homeless
$100 (a month, plus clothing)
Lurking amid the darkened pawn shops of a garbage-strewn street in downtown Norfolk, Va., Don Stephenson cuts an intimidating profile. But to the neighborhood's homeless, his 6', 300-lb. figure is reassuring. One night a week, Stephenson, 36, parks his Lincoln Town Car by the Greyhound bus station and distributes free food and cash to all who ask. "I don't want to see anyone hungry," he says. "I take it personally."
In 1991, Stephenson was homeless himself for a spell after the grandparents with whom he lived died and a cousin inherited their property. "I always had a lot of pride," he says. "I didn't want to impose." A former Army corporal working as a poorly paid nightclub bouncer, Stephenson eventually landed a $7-an-hour job as a janitor at a local power plant. But his time on the streets left an impression. "I didn't know where my next meal was coming from," he says. "It was rough."
Within months he was promoted to crane operator—and vowed to give others a lift. By putting in overtime, Stephenson earned enough to dole out $50 to $100 every week, mostly on street corners, in fives and tens. "When you try to do God's will," he says, "things will happen."
One thing that happened was that Stephenson, by then promoted again, to boiler mechanic, got a write-up last year in The Virginian-Pilot. He used his newfound prominence to organize a clothing drive and a Thanksgiving feast for 300 of Norfolk's neediest. "They want to know that people really care," he says." I understand, because I've been there."
- Gerald Burstyn,
- Rochelle Jones,
- Ellen Mazo,
- Fannie Weinstein,
- Ulrica Wihlborg,
- Kelly Williams.
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