Oseola McCarty, 91, Washerwoman With a Heart of Gold
By Rick Bragg,, September 28, 1999
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- She had not even known exactly what the word philanthropy meant, but the elderly washerwoman who gave away practically every dollar she ever made to endow a scholarship fund for poor students in Mississippi would become a symbol of selfless giving.
Oseola McCarty, who gave away a life savings of $150,000 to help complete strangers get a college education at the University of Southern Mississippi here in her hometown, died late Sunday afternoon in the little frame house where she took in laundry and ironing and made her small fortune a dollar or two at a time.
Miss McCarty was told that she had liver cancer three weeks ago, about a year after she underwent surgery for colon cancer. She wanted her last days to be spent in the little house where she spent most of her life. She was 91.
"I don't want to close my eyes because I don't know if I'll open them again," the tiny, frail woman told a visitor recently. "But I am not afraid."
In anticipation of her death, she decided in the summer of 1995 to give away most of her life savings, saying that there was nothing in particular she wanted to buy and no place in particular she wanted to go. An only child who had outlived her relatives, she lived a solitary existence, surrounded by rows of clothes she made pretty for people who knew her only as the washerwoman.
"I'm giving it away so that the children won't have to work so hard, like I did," she said in July 1995.
She did not want any monuments, any proclamations, said people that knew her. But the selflessness of her gift would bring her worldwide attention. The woman who had gone out only for some preaching at the Friendship Baptist Church in Hattiesburg and to buy groceries would be honored by the United Nations, would shake hands with President Clinton and would receive more than 300 awards. People all over the world knew who she was and what she did.
The woman who acted in anticipation of death found a life she could have never imagined. She flew on a plane for the first time in her life and laughed out loud when the food did not fall off the tray as the plane rumbled through the sky. She stayed in a hotel for the first time in her life, and before she checked out, she made the bed.
"People treated her like a monument," said Jewel Tucker, the secretary to the president of the university and Miss McCarty's traveling companion in those almost giddy years after the gift. "But she was really a movement. It will keep moving."
Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty's gift, Ted Turner, a multibillionaire, gave away a billion dollars.
"He said, 'If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion,"' Ms. Tucker said.
If anyone can say they felt adoration in their life, Ms. Tucker said, Miss McCarty could. People would see her in airports and flock to her. Some people just wanted to touch her, as though she was good luck.
Along with all the plaques and trophies or other honors -- she received the Presidential Citizen's Medal, the nation's second highest civilian award, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University -- she was awarded other things that were pure fun.
In 1996, she carried the Olympic torch through part of Mississippi. Later that year, hers was the hand on the switch that dropped the ball in Times Square in New York's wild New Year's Eve celebration. In fact, she said at the time, it was the first time she had actually stayed up past midnight.
Miss McCarty will lie in state in the rotunda of the university's main building on Saturday.
Friends like Aubrey K. Lucas, president emeritus of the University of Southern Mississippi, said it warmed him and others that came into contact with her to know that a lifetime of loneliness had been pushed aside by all the positive attention that her gift brought.
Horace Fleming, the university's president, said he sometimes wondered if all the attention that came her way was really welcome. But he believes now that it was.
Her traveling companion, Ms. Tucker, knows that Miss McCarty did enjoy it.
Although she never asked for it, "She loved every minute of it," Ms. Tucker said.
In time, people came to see her almost like an oracle and listened closely for pearls of wisdom at the little woman's knee.
But her friends know that Miss McCarty's wisdom was really a mix of common decency and common sense.
"There's a lot of talk about self-esteem these days," she once said. "It seems pretty basic to me. If you want to feel proud of yourself, you've got to do things you can be proud of. Feelings follow actions."
The university's president said that a New York reporter once asked him out of earshot of Miss McCarty to tell him the true story of her gift.
"How did it really happen?" the reporter asked him.
The president told the reporter that it happened just as Miss McCarty said, that she had wanted to do something good with the money she had made. It is not any more complicated than that, Fleming said.
In a world in which people are suspicious of things too good to be true, he said, Miss McCarty really was good and true.
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov