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Saving Grace

updated 08/28/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1995 01:00AM

FOR MOST OF HER 87 YEARS, Osceola McCarty of Hattiesburg, Miss., took in the wash of the local gentry—and did it by hand. McCarty, who tried a washer and dryer but found them woefully inadequate, scrubbed her clothes on a washboard in the backyard of the wood-frame house she once shared with her mother and grandmother. She boiled the whites in a big black pot and hung them on the line to dry and sparkle. The bankers and doctors and lawyers of Hattiesburg (pop. 45,000) considered McCarty a treasure.

What they did not know was that McCarty, who retired in December, was quietly amassing her own treasure. In fact nobody would ever have known, except that last month the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg announced that the tiny washerwoman was leaving some $150,000 to finance scholarships for the area's African-American students. "I want them to have an education," says McCarty, who never married and has no children of her own. "I had to work hard all my life. They can have the chance that I didn't have."

McCarty lost her chance in the sixth grade when an unwed aunt came out of the hospital unable to walk. McCarty left school to care for her; she also helped her mother and grandmother with their backyard laundry business. "Even when I was little," says McCarty, "I was always getting into the wash, till my mama got a switch." By the time her aunt got back on her feet a year later, McCarty thought she was too far behind to return to school. "I was too big," she says. "So I kept on working."

Most of McCarty's days followed a simple routine. She got up with the sun, started the washing and ironing and stopped when the sun went down. "She had a bench in the backyard with three tubs on it," says Helen Tyre, 89, who hired McCarty back in 1943. "She and her mother and grandmother carried the water from a hydrant." Tyre remembers a time when McCarty charged just 50 cents a bundle (a week's worth of laundry for a family of four). Eventually her fee climbed to $10 a bundle, still not all that much. McCarty's needs are few. She does not have a car. She has one TV that works and an air conditioner that she rarely turns on. Mostly, she reads her Bible.

McCarty thought for years about leaving money to the local university. But it was only this past June, shortly after arthritis forced her to stop taking in wash, that she reached out to the school. "Frankly, I didn't believe it at first," says Bill Pace, executive director of the USM Foundation, which handles the school's donations. "I was amazed that someone who made their money that way could save that much and then would give it away."

Though the scholarships were not supposed to go into effect until after McCarty's death, Pace and other USM officials wanted her to see one of her beneficiaries graduate. So they awarded the first Osceola McCarty Scholarship of $1,000 (tuition is $2,400 a year) to Stephanie Bullock, 18, whose mother teaches school in Hattiesburg and whose father supervises a water-treatment plant. Stephanie has a twin brother, Stephen, and the Bullocks were worried about sending both kids to school. "When we heard about the scholarship," says Stephanie, "my mama was smiling from ear to ear."

Word of McCarty's gift has, in fact, caused a good many people to smile—and open their pocketbooks. Local businesspeople have pledged to match McCarty's $150,000 contribution, and checks are coming in from all over. McCarty, meanwhile, is a bit bewildered by the fuss—and by the question she hears over and over: Why didn't you spend the money on yourself? "I am spending it on myself," she answers with the sweetest of smiles.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
RON RIDENHOUR in Hattiesburg

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