Eugene Lang, who just died at 98, was a very successful investor who rose from poverty. But that is not what makes his story so remarkable.
It was something he began, on an impulse, in June 1981, when he spoke to a class of sixth graders at a Harlem Public School.
The 61 students were black and Hispanic, and poor–as Mr. Lang himself had been at their age.
He began by telling them how inspiring Martin Luther King had been, how important hard work is, and other familiar observations about how to make your own life and others’ better.
But he quickly realized that these kids were on another planet and would simply ignore an old, rich white man, even though his background was as impoverished as theirs.
He had grown up in a $12-a-month cold-water flat in New York, graduated from high school at 14, and went to work in a restaurant. A regular customer there talked with him, realized how brilliant his waiter really was, and arranged a college interview. Lang was accepted to one of America’s best colleges, Swarthmore, and given financial aid to make it possible for him to attend.
As he spoke to the kids in Harlem, he must have seen a chance to pay back that regular customer a half-century later.
So, on an impulse, he told the class something remarkable.
He said he would give each of them a college scholarship if they were admitted to a four-year college.
Then, after the principal told him that only one or two would make it to college, he began to do more.
He “adopted” the class and the school and began contributing in ways that would make them ready and eager to take advantage of his offer.
With Lang’s help and the students’ commitment, the success rate was much higher, around 50%. As the New York Times says in his obituary:
At least half of the original 61 sixth graders — they called themselves Dreamers — enrolled in public and private colleges, although The Daily News later reported that some students had misunderstood the offer as a promise to pay tuition even at expensive colleges and were bitter. Of those who passed up college, Mr. Lang often found them jobs.
“I know I’m going to make it,” Aristides Alvarado, then a 20-year-old junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told an interviewer in 1989. “And someday I’ll be big — real big — and pay the tuition for my own class of Dreamers.”
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time, observed: “Lang put up a lot more than money. He put himself on the line, too.” –New York Times
Lang founded the “I Have a Dream Foundation” and established year-round enrichment programs. He persuaded many rich friends to open similar programs or contribute to his or others.
Over his lifetime, he gave $150 million to charities, including $50 million to his alma mater, Swarthmore, and another $20 million to the New School for Social Research in New York.
Eugene Lang: a true mensch.
May his memory be a blessing.